2022 Sundance Film Festival: Best and Worst Films

  • Publish Date: January 29, 2022
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The winners

The U.S. dramatic jury prizes were selected by a jury consisting of Marielle Heller, Payman Maadi, and Chelsea Barnard. Other prizes were selected by additional juries.

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic)
Horror/Thriller/Drama | USA | Directed by Nikyatu Jusu

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Previous Grand Jury Prize winners:
2021: CODA 75
2020: Minari 87
2019: Clemency 77
2018: The Miseducation of Cameron Post 69
2017: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore 75

It's the first horror(-ish) film to win Sundance's top award since 1991's Poison (which also was only a horror film in part, and an unconventional one at that). Nanny is also the feature debut from writer-director Nikyatu Jusu, who previously brought her short film Suicide by Sunlight to the festival in 2019. Drawing on West African folklore, her winning film follows a Senegalese immigrant (a widely praised Anna Diop) who leaves her own son behind (temporarily, she hopes) to find work in America, where she secures a job as a nanny for the young daughter of wealthy white Manhattanites. But her already difficult life becomes more so as a series of haunting dreams plagued by an ominous supernatural presence begin to blur into reality.

Not every critic is as enamored with Nanny as the Sundance jury was, and the film's horror elements have been their biggest complaint. The Guardian's Lisa Wong Macabasco, for example, admire's the filmmaker's eye for "rich details" but complains that the film "loosely assembled" from those parts "packs a rather toothless punch," ultimately resulting in "a missed opportunity to explore some of the very real exploitation and abuse that domestic workers in the United States regularly face." Another critic who calls the film a "missed opportunity," The Playlist's Jason Bailey, actually likes the aspects of the film that serve as a "nuanced character drama" about a character type we rarely get to see on the big screen; what he doesn't like is the other half of the film—the one that descends into "a bunch of supernatural mumbo jumbo" with horror elements that "feel jarringly out of place."

Conversely, Screen Daily's Allan Hunter thinks that "Jusu retains command of the disparate elements," though he later backtracks a bit and admits that "the supernatural element almost feels like a distraction or one ingredient too many for the film to incorporate." And The Hollywood Reporter's Jourdain Searles has nothing but praise for this "perfect marriage of director and star." Also a fan of the horror elements, the critic adds, "The film's skilled usage of folklore is an inspired breath of fresh air in a horror landscape so often uninterested in the African diaspora."

Nanny does not yet have a distributor, but the festival win should change that fairly quickly.

U.S. Audience Award (Dramatic)
Cha Cha Real Smooth
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Cooper Raiff
Acquired by Apple for $15 million (streaming date tbd)

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Previous Audience Award winners:
2021: CODA 75
2020: Minari 87
2019: Brittany Runs a Marathon 72
2018: Burden 63
2017: Crown Heights 64

Writer-director-actor Cooper Raif’s crowd-pleasing follow-up to 2020’s Shithouse finds Raif playing a recent college graduate whose job as a bar mitzvah hype man leads to a friendship with a mother (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic, teenage daughter (Vanessa Burghardt). While The Guardian's Benjamin Lee finds Raiff’s second film to be a “sickly-sweet disappointment,” the majority of critics believe he’s building on the strengths of his debut. A.A. Dowd of the AV Club is impressed with Raiff’s ability to “develop a comic voice that feels entirely singular,” and Rodrigo Perez of The Playlist believes it’s an “endlessly charming, equally sensitive, bittersweet follow-up that proves he’s no one-hit-wonder.” Lastly, IndieWire's David Ehrlich sees “another effortlessly funny and endlessly forgiving mash note to anyone who’s struggled to reconcile the life they got with the one they imagined for themselves.”

It was the second-straight Audience Award winner nabbed by Apple, and that $15 million payout was the most for any Sundance film this year (though far short of the $25 million record set by last year's winner, CODA).

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary)
The Exiles
Documetnary | USA | Directed by Ben Klein and Violet Columbus

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Previous Grand Jury doc winners:
2021: Summer of Soul 96
2020: Boys State 84
2019: One Child Nation 85
2018: Kailash 66
2017: Dina 75

In their debut feature, directors Violet Columbus and Ben Klein follow documentary filmmaker Christine Choy (director of the Oscar nominated Who Killed Vincent Chin?) as she travels with footage from an abandoned project she began in 1989 on the Tiananmen Square massacre to Taiwan, Maryland, and Paris in order to share it with three exiled dissidents who have never been able to return home. THR's John DeFore believes Exiles is a “mixed bag as a piece of storytelling,” but IndieWire critic David Ehrlich thinks this portrait of Choy and the leaders of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests “gradually coheres into a scattershot yet poignant microcosm of the clear and present dangers that result from denying people of their pasts.” Screen Daily's Wendy Ide agrees it can be “a little scattershot at times, but the film illuminates the considerable cost of dissent, both then and now.” And in his review for The Playlist, Andrew Bundy insists, despite it’s “lopsided” structure and tone swaying from “somewhat harshly between justifiably acidic and politically enlightening,” the film is “an essential look at “philosophical homelessness” and an expert example of documentary cinema as a truth-telling device.”

U.S. Audience Award (Documentary)
Festival Favorite Award

Documentary | USA | Directed by Daniel Roher
Will air on CNN and stream on HBO Max later this year (date tbd)

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Previous Audience Award doc winners:
2021: Summer of Soul 96
2020: Crip Camp 86
2019: Knock Down the House 80
2018: The Sentence 69
2017: Chasing Coral 86

A last-minute "secret" addition to the festival's U.S. Documentary Competition, the nonfiction thriller Navalny won not only that competition's Audience Award but also the "Festival Favorite" award open to every Sundance film across all categories (and also determined by audience rather than jury votes).

The title subject is Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. In August 2020, Navalny survived an assassination attempt by poisoning with the lethal nerve agent Novichok. During his recovery, he, along with the investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat and other international news organizations, made shocking discoveries about the attempt on his life—revelations denied by President Vladimir Putin. “Canadian director Daniel Roher details in cogent, stressful, riveting fashion just how scared the Kremlin is of Navalny,” writes The Guardian's Adrian Horton, who also declares Navalny to be “a feast of evermore unbelievable details and a window into a movement against a state of increasingly boldfaced, demeaning lies.” Daniel Fienberg of THR finds this “pervasively ominous snapshot of a scary ongoing global moment” to be “at least as sad as it is pulse-pounding,” while Screen Daily critic Fionnuala Halligan adds, “Navalny has all the drama of a spy novel, more in fact. It has been edited for pace and immediacy, yet it doesn’t come across as contrived. It’s also lump-in-the-throat stuff.”

Other winning films include:

World Cinema Dramatic - Grand Jury Prize: Utama (Boliva/Uruguay/France)

World Cinema Dramatic - Audience Award: Girl Picture (Finland)

World Cinema Documentary - Grand Jury Prize: All That Breathes (India/UK)

World Cinema Documentary - Audience Award: The Territory (Brazil/Denmark/USA)

NEXT Audience Award: Framing Agnes (Canada/USA)

Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize: After Yang (previously screened at Cannes)

Best of the festival

Below are additional titles generating the most positive buzz at this year's festival. That's followed by a list of the remaining notable festival debuts, and then by a recap of this year's Sundance duds. Note that any Sundance films which previously debuted at other festivals (most notably, After Yang and Happening) are excluded.

All That Breathes
Documentary | India/UK | Directed by Shaunak Sen

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In director Shaunak Sen’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary portrait, brothers Saud and Nadeem dedicate their lives in New Delhi to caring for the injured black kites, a bird that, when fed, Muslims believe will expel troubles. For THR critic Daniel Fienberg it’s “one of the more dreamily provocative documentaries” he’s ever seen, “Portrait of a city? Portrait of a pair of heroic brothers? Portrait of humanity on the brink of COVID? In this tiny marvel of a documentary, it’s a little and a lot all at once.” According to Alistair Ryder of The Film Stage, “It’s one of the most powerful cinematic approaches to the climate crisis yet made,” and IndieWire's David Ehrlich calls it a “vital and transfixing work of urban ecology.”

Fire of Love
Documentary | USA/Canada | Directed by Sara Dosa
Acquired by National Geographic for approximately $3-$7 million for a tbd 2022 theatrical release

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The new documentary from director Sara Dosa (The Seer and the Unseen), which won an editing award at the festival, follows French husband and wife volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft over their 20+ year career as they unravel the mysteries and capture some of the most amazing footage ever of volcanoes. “The Kraffts, in their way, were true filmmakers. When you see a shot of one of them in protective gear, silhouetted by a shooting curtain of red-orange liquid, it’s pure sci-fi,” according to Owen Gleiberman of Variety. In his Sundance diary for the LA Times, Justin Chang calls Fire a “gorgeous portrait” that “makes the Kraffts’ magnificent obsession your own with its jaw-dropping eruption footage.” IndieWire's Ryan Lattanzio agrees, writing, “Fire of Love allows you to contemplate life lived at the edge of the abyss, at the precipice of spewing lava and 1200-degree Celsius heat.”

God's Country
Thriller | USA | Directed by Julian Higgins

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Director Julian Higgins makes his feature debut with this adaptation of James Lee Burke’s short story “Winter Light.” Co-written with Shaye Ogbonna, the narrative follows Sandra (Thandiwe Newton), a college professor grieving her mother’s death, as she confronts two hunters who trespass on her property. It’s a battle of wills augmented by the sexism, racism and toxic masculinity surrounding Sandra, and “Newton is a compelling and emotionally communicative presence, easily sustaining viewer interest in this restrained, oft-silent role,” according to Dennis Harvey of Variety. The film as a whole provides a “wild and satisfying” journey” according to THR's Lovia Gyarkye, and in her review for TheWrap, Ronda Racha Penrice adds, “Much about God’s Country is provocative, raising critical questions about boundaries, environmental stewardship, community, inclusion, grief and more. It is, however, a slow burn, requiring patience and attention.”

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Drama/Comedy | UK | Directed by Sophie Hyde
Acquired by Searchlight Pictures for $7.5 million for release on Hulu (date tbd)

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Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays, Animals) directs what Justin Chang of the LA Times calls a “wondrously intimate hotel-chamber piece,” that pairs Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack as, respectively, a retired schoolteacher and the sex worker she hires in hopes of finally having good sex. /Film's Ben Pearson believes Leo Grande to be a “spellbinding piece of filmmaking, an acting masterclass, a celebration of the written word, and a powerful cinematic plea for self-acceptance and self-love.” And in her review for The Playlist, Tomris Laffly is equally enthralled, writing, “Sharply written by the multi-hyphenate English artist Katy Brand with flourishes of inventive humor, perceptive director Sophie Hyde’s bracingly sex-positive Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is a refreshing exception to typical depictions of female sexuality in mainstream film.”

Horror | Finland | Directed by Hanna Bergholm
Opens in theaters and on VOD on April 29

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A twist on the coming-of-age and body horror genres, director Hanna Bergholm’s feature debut, written by Ilja Rautsi, follows Tinja, a tween gymnast struggling to please her mother. She discovers and cares for a strange egg, and what eventually hatches is a very hungry creature she names Alli. Writing for The Film Stage, Brianna Zigler claims Hatching is a “knotty delight, however on-the-nose its metaphor about those monsters we fashion from our own disfigured forms of love.” Screen Daily's Nikki Baughan believes the “often-shocking visual effects weave seamlessly into the narrative to underscore its themes, rather than being distracting set-pieces.” And an equally positive David Rooney concludes in his THR review, “A fascinating window into the psychological and emotional minefield of early puberty and the torn feelings of a vulnerable child watching her darkest instincts play out, Hatching delivers.”

The Janes
Documentary | USA | Directed by Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin
Will air on HBO later in 2022

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Directors Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) and Emma Pildes (a producer of Jane Fonda in Five Acts) deliver what THR's Sheri Linden describes as “an urgent and thoroughly engaging group portrait” of the Jane Collective, an underground Chicago-based group of women who provided over 11,000 illegal abortions from 1968 until the Supreme Court ruling sin Roe v. Wade. In the eyes of Screen Daily critic Fionnuala Halligan, a drama like Call Jane (see entry later on this page), Sundance’s fictional look at the same subject, “doesn’t really get you there in the same way” this documentary does, because “no fiction could hope to match the strangeness and sadness of the truth here.” IndieWire's Kate Erbland agrees: “At once deeply personal and painfully political, The Janes should be required watching for everyone. Notably, it knows that and leans into it.”

Drama | UK | Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for $5 million

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Director Oliver Hermanus (Moffie), working from a rare screenplay by Nobel- and Booker Prize–winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (Klara and the Sun, Never Let Me Go), moves Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru to post-war London, resulting in what The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw calls a “gentle, exquisitely sad film.” Playing a civil servant who learns he has a terminal illness, “Bill Nighy brings a quiet dignity to the role of Mr. Williams, an anchor of buttoned-up solidity in an old-fashioned weepie which captures the lush sentimental swirl of the original while also evoking a distinctive sense of backdrop and period,” writes Wendy Ide for Screen Daily. In his five-star review for The Telegraph, Robbie Collin states, “It’s a film that could have so easily smacked of an exercise, but its beauty feels thrillingly natural, and its considerable emotional power is honestly earned.”

A Love Song
Drama | USA | Directed by Max Walker-Silverman

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Writer-director Max Walker-Silverman’s debut feature is an “achingly tender drama of lost loves, buried dreams and second chances,” according to Justin Chang of the LA Times. Dale Dickey gets a rare lead role as Faye, a widow waiting at a campsite for the childhood sweetheart she hasn’t seen in decades. He’s played by Wes Studi, and The Playlist's Marya E. Gates believes “Dickey and Studi are magnetic on-screen, oscillating between the easy chemistry of old friends, and the awkwardness of strangers.” Jacob Oller of Paste similarly believes A Love Song is “so romantic that your heart breaks before you know how it’ll shake out.” The biggest supporter of this “miraculously radiant first feature” is TheWrap's Carlos Aguilar, “As exquisitely transcendent a film as 2022 will likely see, A Love Song is a cinematic rhapsody told in whispers of truth that confirms that love, for a lifetime or for a moment, merits the effort to be pursued in other people and in the overlooked wonders of existence.”

Nothing Compares
Documentary | Ireland/UK | Directed by Kathryn Ferguson

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Belfast native Kathryn Ferguson heads south of the border to find the subject for her first feature-length documentary: Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O'Connor, whose early pop stardom in the late 1980s gave way to increasing controversy and activism (as well as a more under-the-radar continuing music career). Nothing Compares focuses on the first half of that description: O'Connor's rise to fame following a difficult childhood and her first, often misunderstood, attempts to take on the establishment. The result is a major success according to some critics, and a missed opportunity in the eyes of others. In the former category is The Telegraph's music critic, Neil McCormick, who deems the film a "vital testament to the bravery and significance" of the "heroic" O'Connor even as he admits that "Ferguson notably sidesteps many of the personal complications of O’Connor’s life." In Variety, Owen Gleiberman also admires an "incisive and poignant documentary" while Screen's Fionnuala Halligan praises an "empathetic" and "tenderly-edited" film. But Slashfilm's Chris Evangelista is one of several reviewers to fault the film's incompleteness, warning, "It's all a little too slight — so much of O'Connor's life is left out, and the entire thing feels a little bit like the CliffsNotes version of the story." In addition to faulting the "too safe" film for ending with O'Connor's infamous 1992 SNL appearance and ignoring the past three decades, The Playlist's Jonathan Christian laments that "Ferguson neglects to unearth the inspirations behind the content of her first three albums." Another thing you definitely won't hear in the doc is the song referenced by the title, after rights to use it were denied by the estate of Prince (who wrote the song).

Palm Trees and Power Lines
Drama | USA | Directed by Jamie Dack

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Expanding her 2018 short film, Jamie Dack took home the directing award in the U.S. Dramatic competition for this examination of the relationship between a restless 17-year-old (Lily McInerny, in a highly praised performance) and a man twice her age played by Jonathan Tucker. The Guardian's Adrian Horton calls Dack’s feature debut “remarkably sharp-eyed and bruising” and McInerny’s performance “an astoundingly calibrated turn, one of barely lidded emotions that eventually skitter about.” In her review for THR, Lovia Gyarke calls the film “a gift,” adding, “Fleeting glances, nearly undetectable changes in body language, a haunting shift in tone and deliberate silences come together to form an unnerving examination of consent and predation.” Over at The Playlist, Andrew Crump is impressed by how the “fearsome and fearless” film “practically dares viewers to watch what’s happening on screen without flinching.” And AV Club critic A.A. Dowd takes it one step further: “You’re watching a car accident in slow motion, unable to intervene as someone too young to know better is steadily steered towards a devastating outcome.”

Something in the Dirt
Sci-fi/Horror/Comedy | USA | Directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson

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The latest one-of-a-kind feature from the duo of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (Synchronic, The Endless, Spring, Resolution) is “half mock-doc, half sci-fi two-hander, all bone-dry L.A. satire,” according to Jacob Oller of Paste. Tracking the fraying friendship of neighbors John (Moorhead) and Levi (Benson) as they document supernatural events, this “fusion of science fiction, character drama, dark comedy, and overwhelming paranoia ... feels like their most personal film” to Jason Bailey of The Playlst, “and not just because they wear so many hats, directing and writing and producing and editing and starring.” EW's Joshua Rothkopf sees a “kind of poetry here, both a reflection of their city and of dead-end lives, and even if they can't articulate it perfectly, they're trying.” And /Film's Chris Evangelista believes this “blend of surreal horror and found-footage aesthetics” proves, once again, that Benson and Moorhead “can produce a stellar, original film with a tiny fraction of the budget of bigger Hollywood filmmakers. The movie landscape is a far better, weird, and beautiful place with them in it.”

Speak No Evil
Horror/Thriller | Denmark | Directed by Christian Tafdrup
Acquired by Shudder (for an unspecified amount) and will stream in late 2022

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Danish writer-director Christian Tafdrup’s satirical work of horror catches a Danish family in their own web of politeness as they struggle to leave their Dutch hosts’ countryside home despite mounting signs of trouble. Screen Daily's Wendy Ide warns, “It’s a profoundly uncomfortable piece of filmmaking, a meticulously judged exercise in satirical sadism.” In his review for Variety, Dennis Harvey adds, “While the resulting experience can’t exactly be called enjoyable, there is no denying the skill involved, particularly among the adult performers.” EW's Leah Greenblatt believes the “payoff almost over-delivers — a twist so casually depraved it's one of the few genuinely shocking endings on screen this year.” And writing for IndieWire, Susannah Gruder calls this “masterly work of sadistic and painstakingly drawn-out social horror” the “most cunningly depraved horror film in years, offering a piercing commentary on the ways we accommodate others to the point of self-subjugation.”

The Territory
Documentary | Brazil/Denmark/USA | Directed by Alex Pritz

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Cinematographer Alex Pritz’s first feature as a director earned two awards at this year’s festival—the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary competition and a Special Jury Award for “Documentary Craft.” Created with the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people of Brazil, the film chronicles the encroachment of outsiders on their rainforest and their fight against incursion beginning in 2018. According to THR critic Sheri Linden, “Its strength lies in the way it offers intimate access to people on several clashing sides of the situation, making for a complex, layered and thoughtful examination.” Writing for IndieWire, Siddhant Adlakha lauds this “gorgeously and sometimes ingeniously conceived” film for how it paints “an intimate first-hand portrait of joy, pain, and community, before bursting with rip-roaring intensity.” Variety's Guy Lodge finds Territory to be “riveting and despairing in equal measure,” and Ben Pearson of /Film deems it a “gripping snapshot of crimes in progress and an engrossing piece of cinematic activism.”

Drama | Bolivia/Uruguay/France | Directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi

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Bolivian writer-director Alejandro Loayza Grisi won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for this look at an elderly couple (José Calcina and Luisa Quispe, Aymaran descendants the filmmaker met while scouting locations) living on Bolivia’s arid Altiplano, where water has become even more scarce in recent years. While their grandson encourages them to move to the city, they resist, invoking the film’s title, which means “our home” in Quechua. Writing for The Playlist, Gregory Ellwood admits it’s a “simple story, but one that packs an emotional punch.” In his review for THR, Jordan Mintzer agrees, “It’s a powerful and cautionary tale of survival in a dying world.” And Variety critic Peter Debruge believes Utama to be a “sublime, quietly elegiac feature debut.”

We Need to Talk About Cosby
TV/Documentary | USA | Directed by W. Kamau Bell
Debuts January 30 on Showtime

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What could be the tagline for any episode of Threedom is instead a very serious, four-part reevaluation of the career of actor/comedian Bill Cosby in light of the numerous accusations of sexual assault that have been leveled against the one-time superstar in recent years. Directed by W. Kamau Bell, the series could be seen as a companion to 2016's O.J. Simpson: Made in America in that both works explore what each man's actions and celebrity say about America. And, like that latter series, We Need to Talk has been receiving widespread critical acclaim following its Sundance debut. In The Hollywood Reporter, Dan Fienberg, deems Talk "a complicated and pragmatic project" that is "exactly the right documentary for the moment." Another fan is Daily Beast critic Kevin Fallon, who praises a work that is "comprehensive, harrowing, and exhaustive," while IndieWire's Ben Travers similarly labels it "accessible, perceptive, and thorough." But is it too thorough? One dissenter, The Telegraph's Ed Power, feels that the overly ambitious series is both "excessive and lacking focus."

Other notable debuts (good but unexceptional)

2nd Chance
Documentary | USA | Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Acquired by Showtime and will open in theaters ahead of its cable debut in late 2022 (dates tbd)

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Described by many reviewers as entertaining but also a bit of a missed opportunity, the first documentary feature from director Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes, The White Tiger) tells the story of American entrepreneur Richard Davis, a U.S. Marine turned failed pizzeria owner who, in 1969, invented the bulletproof vest—famously shooting himself numerous times at close range to demonstrate its capabilities—and launched what would become one of the world's largest body armor companies, Second Chance. But the Davis story is not one of unequivocal success, and a product design failure resulting in the death of a vest-wearing policeman turns out to be just one of many scandals to ensnare the inventor over the years. Bahrani, who also narrates the film and interviews Davis on camera, has made a "brilliantly inquisitive" and "remarkably balanced" documentary, according to The Wrap's Carlos Aguilar in an enthusiastic review. But Aguilar also wonders if the material wouldn't be better served by a longer format, and Slashfilm's Chris Evangelista seems to agree, noting that the doc merely "runs through bullet points rather than taking a deeper dive into Richard and his life." And IndieWire critic David Ehrlich finds the result "jaw-dropping but often unfocused," while worrying that "fact-checking wasn’t a top priority here." But Screen's Lee Marshall is much more of a fan, calling Bahrani's film "slyly entertaining but also morally and emotionally resonant."

Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin

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Abi Damaris Corbin makes her feature directorial debut with this dramatization of what happened when Marine war veteran Brian Brown-Easley walked into a Wells Fargo in Marietta, Ga. on July 7, 2017. Co-written by Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah and starring John Boyega as Brown-Easley and featuring Michael K. Williams in one of his last roles, the film as a whole divided critics, but Boyega’s lead performance earned universal praise. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw believes “Boyega’s performance has an essential sympathy and dignity that are vital” to this “fervent if slightly by-the-numbers hostage drama,” and TheWrap's Alonso Duralde thinks it’s “undeniably an impressive feature debut,” hitting “some narrative bumps along the way without diminishing its tougher observations about race, the police, and the treatment of veterans.” Writing for THR, Love Gyarkye claims “strong performances carry 892,” which offers a “damning lesson about how the United States abandons its veterans.” But in his assessment for The Playlist, Robert Daniels finds this “tightly constructed, yet cold film” leaves viewers with little knowledge about the actual man at its center.

Drama | USA | Directed by Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro
Expected to be acquired by Warner Bros. for $7 million to stream on HBO Max

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The feature debut of married co-directors Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne explores the life-long friendship of Lucy (Dakota Johnson) and Jane (Sonoya Mizuno). When Jane announces she plans to move to London for work and Lucy finally admits she likes women, the two friends navigate these changes in different ways. In her review for TheWrap, Elizabeth Weitzman describes it as a “warmhearted crowdpleaser undercut by moments of hesitation.” Screen Daily's Tim Grierson concurs, concluding, “The likeable feature debut of directors Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro is boosted by the warm chemistry between its leads, who navigate this later-in-life coming-of-age story with considerable charm. Even so, the flimsy narrative is undone by some frustratingly inorganic plot twists and a generally slack execution.” But Mary Siroky of Consequence gives the film an “A,” declaring that Johnson and Mizuno are “magical together.” And writing for THR, Angie Han reveals, “It ends with a resolution so humbly perfect, I was surprised at how suddenly it brought tears to my eyes.”

Call Jane
Drama | USA | Directed by Phyllis Nagy

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Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy takes a seat in the director’s chair for this fictionalized take on the Jane Collective—a group of women who facilitated safe, illegal abortions in Chicago in the late 1960s and early ‘70s—a subject also tackled by another Sundance movie this year, the documentary The Janes. Elizabeth Banks stars as Joy, a suburban housewife in need of an abortion when her pregnancy becomes life-threatening. A lack of high stakes was an issue for multiple critics, like Jake Kring-Schreifels of The Film Stage, who finds Call Jane a “competently made, well-acted historical drama that doesn’t give its charged subject matter the stakes or urgency it needs.” But Justin Chang of the LA Times labels it “subtly accomplished” with a “terrific Elizabeth Banks,” and THR's Sheri Linden agrees that Banks delivers “her most complex and stirring feature-film performance in years,” in a film whose final moments are “powerful with unanticipated joy.”

Downfall: The Case Against Boeing
Documentary | USA | Directed by Rory Kennedy
Streams February 18 on Netflix

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In late 2018, a Boeing 737 MAX crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, killing everyone aboard. Five months later, another 737 MAX crashed in an eerily similar incident in Ethiopia, prompting officials to ground the plane across the globe. In the Netflix feature Downfall, veteran documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy (Last Days in Vietnam) investigates both crashes and the corporate culture that led to them, talking to the victims' families as well as industry experts, journalists, and former Boeing employees. Her film certainly does not go easy on the aviation giant, and The Wrap's Elizabeth Weitzman calls the result "a work of impressive investigative cinema," even if her biggest takeaway isn't necessarily about Boeing but the film's "intimation that this specific account of corporate malfeasance is just one chapter in a far bigger book." IndieWire's David Ehrlich find's Downfall's message important and appropriately "enraging" yet bemoans the "basic" film's "anti-cinematic" style, which has "all the panache of a 'Dateline' special." And THR's Dan Fienberg deems the film unpersuasive and "superficial," plagued by "bad rhetoric" and "missing and unconnected dots."

Sci-fi/Thriller/Comedy | USA | Directed by Riley Stearns
Acquired by RLJE Films for an estimated $1-$4 million for a tbd 2022 theatrical release

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Faults and The Art of Self Defense writer-director Riley Sterns steps into the sci-fi world with his latest feature, the story of a woman (Karen Gillan) who chooses a cloning procedure after receiving a terminal diagnosis (no, this isn’t Swan Song), only to discover later that she’s fine and the only way to eliminate her clone is a televised duel to the death. Not every critic is a fan. The Playlist's Rodrigo Perez cautions that Dual is “often more distant and isolating than it is funny, therefore leading to a movie that feels misjudged and far too remote, even for those well-versed and conversant in this weirdly lopsided style.” On the positive side, Peter Debruge of Variety believes Sterns has created a “morbidly satirical, grimly absurd parallel version of the world as we know it,” and in his review for Paste, Jacob Oller writes, “If you’re blessed with matching taste ... you’ll find a rewarding and gut-busting film that’s lingering ideas are nearly as strong as its humorous, thoughtful construction.”

Comedy | USA | Directed by Carey Williams
Opens in theaters May 20 and streams on Prime Video beginning May 27

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Director Carey Williams (R#J) and screenwriter KD Dávila (winner of the festival's Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) expand their 2018 award-winning Sundance short about the crazy night shared by college roommates Sean (RJ Cyler), Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), and Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) when they discover a white girl passed out on their living room floor. It’s a “hilarious tonal shifting joy ride, though not very incisive thematically,” according to Robert Daniels of The Playlist. That sentiment is echoed by THR's Lovia Gyarkye, writing, “Emergency mostly stays close to the surface of the issues it presents, which results in a darkly funny but frustrating viewing experience.” At IndieWire, Siddhant Adlakha praises the film’s “skillful balance between laughs and nerves, which it centers not only in equal measure, but often at the same time and without compromising either one.” And /Film's Ethan Anderton agrees, concluding, “The result is a chaotic, surprisingly funny, and intense night gone wrong that masterfully balances comedy, drama, and suspense.”

Emily the Criminal
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by John Patton Ford

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Writer-director John Patton Ford’s debut feature is, according to Screen Daily's Tim Grierson, a “thriller consistently pushed into darker, more intriguing terrain by Aubrey Plaza’s electric performance.” She plays the titular character—a debt-burdened ex-art student who dips her toe into crime through a credit card scam only to find she has an affinity for black market thrills. Chris Evangelista of /Film adds, “Plaza’s performance, which grows more desperate and more fierce, is what keeps things going. Tension continually mounts and builds, and writer-director Ford stages several anxiety-ridden set-pieces that inspire a sick-to-your-stomach feeling.” The Guardian's Benjamin Lee also lauds Ford for his “knack for making us sweat without relying on an over-egged score or over-stacked stakes,” and Leah Greenblatt of EW concurs, admiring how “Ford imbues his story with a tense, vibrating energy, moving briskly between the breathlessness of a heist thriller and the sharper barbs of social satire.”

Thriller | USA | Directed by Mimi Cave
Streams on Hulu beginning March 4

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Music video director Mimi Cave’s debut feature garnered a wide range of opinions from critics covering the festival. Written by Lauryn Kahn (Ibiza), the genre-bending thriller follows Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a woman burnt out on what dating apps have provided her, as she meets-cute in the produce aisle and begins to fall for Steve (Sebastian Stan), only to discover he has some unusual appetites. For Elena Lazic of The Playlist it’s “neither an exciting thriller nor a satisfactory (“elevated”) horror metaphor for one of society’s ills.” But EW's Leah Greenblatt believes, “Cave has a smart, stylish way of storytelling that somehow makes a film built on bone saws and grotesqueries feel almost breezy.” In her review for THR, Angie Han agrees: “The true star of Fresh, however, is its style — lush, unsettling and precise. Cave’s camera can be a ruthless killer.” And writing for IndieWire, Natalia Winkelman adds, "Where Promising Young Woman tended to feel labored and clumsy, Fresh is sleek and nimble, a worthy new entry into the feminist revenge thriller genre.”

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
Comedy | USA | Directed by Adamma Ebo

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Writer-director Adamma Ebo and her twin sister, producer Adanne Ebo, make their feature debut with this comedy about Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall), the first lady of Wander To Greater Paths church, and her pastor-husband, Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), as they struggle to rebuild their congregation after a very public scandal. Partly shot in a faux-documentary style, it’s an “uneven but intriguing exploration of faith and human fallibility, guided by gutsy performances from Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown,” according to Tim Grierson of Screen Daily. Writing for The Playlist, Robert Daniels agrees about Brown and Hall, but is a little more positive overall, calling Honk for Jesus a “sly, subversive, satirical comedy.” And IndieWire's Kate Erbland goes even further, declaring the film “equal parts hilarious and painful” and a “winning combination of the divine and the horrific, a takedown of not just fervent religiosity but our own worst human impulses.”

I Didn't See You There
Documentary | USA | Directed by Reid Davenport

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Filmmaker Reid Davenport took home the directing award in the U.S. Documentary competition for this personal essay captured from his vantage in a wheelchair. “He’s a careful observer, filming satisfying parallel lines, color-blocked concrete and disorientingly samey wall tiling with a transformative slow-burn,” writes Paste's Jacob Oller, who finds the film “more poetic than confrontational.” In his review for Variety, Guy Lodge sums up the contradictions of the film: “It’s an evocative first-hand perspective on the challenges of living as a wheelchair-user in an America that still treats disability as an afterthought — but an elusive reflection of an artist who never really introduces himself to us.”

jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy
TV/Documentary/Music | USA | Directed by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah
Streams on Netflix beginning February 16

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Directed by the duo of Coodie & Chike (veterans of numerous music videos including Kanye's "Through the Wire" and documentaries under their own Creative Control label), Netflix's upcoming three-part, four-and-a-half-hour docuseries follows superstar rapper Kanye West's entire music career—a career that the prescient directors have been capturing on film since 1998. There's no question they chose a potentially interesting subject, but did they make a compelling documentary? Critics got their first look at the series at Sundance, and the answer appears to be "Yes, but only in parts." The Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Mintzer thinks "the film very much mimics Yeezy’s career in that it’s impressive, then nearly exhilarating, only to grow exhausting and a bit insufferable in its final sections." Daily Beast critic Marlow Stern comes to a similar conclusion, noting that after many "inspiring and heartfelt moments," the filmmakers lose touch with their subject for years at a time and then "even opt to stop filming West as he starts to spiral in order to preserve their friend’s reputation"—suggesting that the documentary is thus an intentionally incomplete picture of West. Other critics also note the lack of insight into West's behavior in recent years, but are less bothered by that deficiency. The most positive among that group so far is IndieWire's David Ehrlich, who feels that the "almost five hours that flew by like one and could have held my attention for 10 more just like them."

Leonor Will Never Die
Drama | Philippines | Directed by Martika Ramirez Escobar

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Written and directed by Martika Ramirez Escobar, this love letter to cinema stars Sheila Francisco as a retired action filmmaker who falls into a coma and becomes the hero of her unfinished screenplay. In his review for The Playlist, Charles Barfield praises Francisco’s “truly heartfelt and emotional performance,” and the film as a “beautiful, life-affirming celebration of the power of film and art to heal.” Amy Nicholson’s review for Variety claims the films “creative and clever,” though she thinks this debut feature might be “too clever as the film fractalizes into a hall of mirrors.” While The Atlantic critic Shirley Li sees “a delightful surprise; it’s inventive and original, with flourishes of magical realism.” Leonor won a special jury award for “Innovative Spirit” in the World Cinema (Dramatic) competition.

Lucy and Desi
Documentary | USA | Directed by Amy Poehler
Streams on Prime Video beginning March 4

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Rather than forcing actors to play-act as two of the biggest stars in TV history on both sides of the camera, Amy Poehler's first documentary shows the pair of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as they were in real life, using an abundance of archival footage (including home movies) and new interviews to trace their trailblazing paths through the entertainment industry while also documenting their much rockier personal relationship. And critics seem to like the result much better than, say, Being the Ricardos. In fact, even the least positive reviewer so far, The Film Stage's Michael Frank, admits that "Poehler’s warmth rides like a current through the entirety of the film, providing joy that was missing from Aaron Sorkin’s [Ricardos]," even if her film as a whole "can look and sound like a paint-by-numbers documentary." (Screen's Fionnuala Halligan, too, calls the film "conventional-to-a-fault.") At THR, an even more positive Sheri Linden also compares the two Ricardos films and rules in Lucy and Desi's favor, noting, "Poehler’s telling is energized by a personal edge, searing and sympathetic," while also praising the film's "dynamic sense of propulsion." ABC's Peter Travers finds the film "deeply moving," concluding, "Between laughs you'll be blinking back tears." And IndieWire's Robert Daniels notes Poehler's "strong grasp" of the subject matter, resulting in a "smart and affecting" film blemished only a tad by "occasionally trading in hero worship" and lacking revelatory moments for viewers already well-versed in the couple's story.

Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Mariama Diallo
Streams on Prime Video beginning March 18

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Writer-director Mariama Diallo’s debut feature blends horror, drama, psychological thriller, and social critique to tell the story of three Black women at a prestigious New England university—“Master” professor Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), and literature professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray). The AV Club's Katie Rife believes, “This is one of the few ‘social thrillers’ to live up to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning debut in terms of horror craft and incisive commentary on liberal racism,” adding, “The film has more to offer than mere imitation.” And in her review for The Playlist, Marya E. Gates agrees: “Diallo has crafted an incisive, intelligent, and stridently political horror film that is distinctly all her own. The terror at the heart of this film reverberates far beyond the myths of this academic institution. Master excavates the very roots of our country’s foundation and dares us to face the haunted ground on which it is built.” And one of Master’s biggest fans is Robert Daniels, who writes in his IndieWire review, “This mesmerizing freak out, a psychologically brutal witch and ghost story, pulls in viewers with smart writing, and even more brilliant performances. It explicates colorism, racial passing, micro-aggressions, and the crushing pressures of Black Excellence not as history-teaching, example-making cudgels, but as illnesses that live and breathe beneath and above the surface of America.”

The Princess
Documentary | UK | Directed by Ed Perkins
Will open in theaters this summer (date tbd) before airing on HBO and HBO Max

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Yes, it's that princess. Following recent dramatized looks at the life of Diana Spencer, the former Princess of Wales, on screens both small, big, and whatever this is—and a seemingly never-ending parade of TV specials—comes this nonfiction look at Diana's life from Oscar-nominated documentarian Ed Perkins (Tell Me Who I Am). Expected to receive a theatrical release timed to the 25th anniversary of Diana's death in August preceding an airing on HBO, The Princess is stitched together entirely out of archival footage shot by journalists, paparazzi, and even amateurs—there are no present-day interviews or narrators, or even graphics to guide viewers—and places Diana's fairytale-turned-sour story in the context of its contemporaneous press coverage. While the result, according to the AV Club's A.A. Dowd, is akin to "a history lesson on how the Diana story was told while it was still unfolding," it still can't quite "find a fresh angle on one of the most scrutinized lives in history." The Film Stage's John Fink agrees that The Princess "could be read more as an exercise in media study than biopic of Diana," though for IndieWire's appreciative Kate Erbland, that is the point of an "ingenious and chilling" film that also implicates its own audience: "You’re watching it, after all. You’re still watching it."

Horror/Thriller | USA | Directed by Andrew Semans
Acquired by IFC Films and Shudder for a theatrical, VOD, and streaming release (dates tbd)

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Writer-director Andrew Semans’ first feature since 2012’s Nancy, Please stars the multi-talented Rebecca Hall as a single mother to a college-bound daughter (Grace Kaufman) whose orderly life is upended when a man (Tim Roth) from her past returns. While praise for Hall and Roth was universal, the film as a whole received mixed notices. For The NY Times critic Manohla Dargis, it’s a “not entirely successful creepfest with an excellent Rebecca Hall,” and Jordan Raup of The Film Stage believes it “devolves into little more than a diabolically outrageous genre outing for two great actors.” More positive on the film overall, IndieWire critic David Ehrlich thinks this “impressively deranged” film “stands out for how purposefully it seems to walk the line between schlocky crap and serious cinema.” And in his review for The Playlist, Rodrigo Perez writes, “Resurrection is a haunting and visceral depiction of delusion and desperation, sustained by piercing performances from two of the most masterful actors working today.”

Thriller | USA | Directed by Chloe Okuno

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Chloe Okuno’s first feature follows a young woman (Maika Monroe) and her husband (Karl Glusman) to Romania, where he is about to begin a new job, but she feels more and more isolated, unable to speak the language and fearful of someone stalking her. For Jake Kring-Schreifels of The Film Stage, this “chamber piece thriller and the latest gaslighting parable to champion Monroe’s specific set of skills” is a “smart, controlled movie of pricks and gestures and tones that accumulate into a satisfying catharsis. And perhaps validated the urge to follow your gut.” In her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang deems it a “fun, shivery, fish-out-of-water chiller” thanks to a “terrific Maika Monroe, who gets the mature, psychologically rich showcase she’s fully earned with all the running and bleeding she’s done heretofore as a horror heroine.” But IndieWire's Susannah Gruder deems Watcher too "heavy-handed" and "predictable," and finds it hampered by "a rather lifeless cast at its core," while /Film critic Chris Evangelista laments that the film is "never quite as satisfying as it should be."

When You Finish Saving the World
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Jesse Eisenberg
Will receive a theatrical release this year from A24 (date still tbd)

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Adapting the script from his own 2020 audio drama, Jessie Eisenberg’s feature directing debut stars Julianne Moore as a mother struggling to understand her son’s (Finn Wolfhard) values. She runs a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse, and he is obsessed with his online fans. But when they each try to find replacements for each other, more problems arise. Jordan Raup of The Film Stage claims it’s a “slight directorial debut” with “sturdy performances working a script that gets a bit lost,” and for Katie Rife of the AV Club, “Wolfhard and Moore’s performances are what make When You Finish Saving The World worth a watch.” More enthusiastic is IndieWire's David Ehrlich, who finds the movie “cuttingly poignant and cyanide-sweet,” and Wendy Ide of Screen Daily, who describes the “astringent, stingingly funny domestic drama” as “sharp, challenging and wry, but as insistent and uncomfortable as a splinter.”

You Won't Be Alone
Drama/Horror | Australia | Directed by Goran Stolevski
Opens in theaters April 1

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Goran Stolevski’s debut feature takes place in an isolated mountain village in 19th-century Macedonia where a young girl is stolen from her mother, transformed into a witch, and left to wander until, one day, she discovers she can inhabit another’s body (and thus be played by actors including Noomi Rapace, Alice Englert, Carloto Cotta, and Sara Klimoska). As The Guardian's Benjamin Lee notes, it’s a “one-of-a-kind debut,” but it’s also one that divided critics. Among those who believe the director struggles to outrun his influences is Robert Daniels, who writes for The Playlist, “Stolevski aims for a life-affirming treatise on the poetics of human existence but strains to be more than a pretty copy of his well-known influences.” /Film's Chris Evangelista names those influences in his review:  "It is far too indebted to other films — specifically films like The Witch, Under the Skin, and Malick movies like The New World and A Hidden Life. Nearly every scene here reminds you of scenes from films before, and in almost every instance, those other films are better.” But Ryan Lattanzio of IndieWire thinks this “elliptical folk tale” is an “uncategorizable and emotionally gutting debut,” and Screen Daily's Allan Hunter believes “Stolevski brings something fresh to the folk horror genre,” accomplishing a “clever, impressive feat of storytelling marked by originality and a haunting emotional impact,” resulting in a “visceral but surprisingly soulful reflection on what it means to be human.”

The disappointments

Drama | USA | Directed by Krystin Ver Linden
Opens in theaters March 18

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Inspired by true reports of Black Americans who remained slaves more than 100 years after slavery’s declared end, writer-director Krystin Ver Linden’s debut feature combines Southern Gothic and Blaxploitation genres to tell the story of Alice’s (Keke Palmer) liberation. But THR's David Rooney believes it’s an “awkwardly structured adventure that stumbles pretty badly in what should be its most exciting scenes.” In his review for The Playlist, a similarly unimpressed Robert Daniels labels it “stylish, though dull” and a “lost opportunity,” while /Film's Ben Pearson “feels like it never quite lives up to the greatness of its premise.” But in her review for Variety, Amy Nicholson thinks “there’s much to admire about Ver Linden’s attention-grabbing debut,” and the “power of the film — and of Palmer’s phenomenal performance — is watching Alice grow into her voice.”

Sharp Stick
Comedy | USA | Directed by Lena Dunham

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Almost 12 years after Tiny Furniture won Best Narrative Feature at SXSW, Lena Dunham’s belated follow-up film (following a successful detour into television) made its debut at Sundance, but to a far less enthusiastic reception. Tracing the fumbling sexual awakening of a naive 26-year-old played by Kristine Froseth, the film’s main issues, according to Katie Rife of the A.V. Club, are the “bumpy tonal shifts” when the story pivots “midway through from earthbound (if quirky) dramedy into broad sex comedy; the effect is of two half-films awkwardly smushed into one. Still, there are interesting ideas about sex, relationships, bodies, family, and how we present ourselves to the world in this hodgepodge of a film.” In her review for EW, Leah Greenblatt makes it clear where she stands, calling Stick a “strange and sour misfire, so relentlessly softcore yet somehow sexless, it feels almost defiantly stripped of any meaningful message.” Defenders of the film include THR's Jourdain Searles, who looks under the film’s “provocative shell” and sees something “messy and singular, as if it burst fully formed from Dunham’s mind,” and Stephanie Zacharek of Time, who writes, “This is a film made with tenderness, more an exploration than a definitive statement, and a reminder that awkward sex isn’t necessarily bad sex: if anything, it’s the ultimate proof of our bewildering, imperfect humanness.”

Drama | USA | Directed by James Ponsoldt
Previously acquired by Bleecker Street for a theatrical release (date still tbd)

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The latest from writer-director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) follows four 11-year-old girls who discover a dead man’s body over the last week of summer before middle school. Unfortunately, this update of Stand By Me is not the bounce-back from The Circle many critics were hoping Ponsoldt would make. In her review for THR, Angie Han argues that its “potential for magic is dulled by uneven performances, unconvincing chemistry and an uninspiring script.” Co-written with Benjamin Percy, the film “could have been something special,” according to Christopher Schobert of The Film Stage, if Ponsoldt “truly trusted his young performers and crafted the script accordingly”; instead it’s as “unfocused and forgettable as a rainy late-summer afternoon.” Slightly more positive, Variety's Guy Lodge advises, "Summering is a pleasant enough watch for patient, thoughtful children and their elders alike, but something of a disappointment from writer-director James Ponsoldt.”


All photos above courtesy of Sundance Institute.



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