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10 Stunning Feature Debuts That Shook Sundance

We run down the most promising feature debuts -- some from first-timers and some from directors making their first foray into narrative storytelling -- to come out of Park City this year.

by | February 5, 2020 | Comments

From Ava Duvernay, Rian Johnson, and Ryan Coogler to Nicole Holofcener, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez, dozens of filmmakers have burst out of the Sundance Film Festival and chased their Hollywood dreams. Some directors, like Cathy Yan, made the leap from small budget indies like Dead Pigs to big budget studio movies like her next project, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Others, like Steven Soderbergh, have continued to blaze an unconventional path since his debut with Sex, Lies and Videotape over 30 years ago. This year’s group of first-time filmmakers are no less talented, many of them already earning praise from audiences and critics alike. There’s a good chance we may see many more movies from them in the years to come.


I Carry You with Me (2021) 96%

Alejandro López courtesy of Sundance Institute

(Photo by Alejandro López courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Technically speaking, I Carry You With Me isn’t a true debut for Heidi Ewing, who has been crafting acclaimed feature documentaries for a decade and a half (2006’s Jesus Camp was even nominated for an Oscar). That said, Ewing makes her first foray into narrative filmmaking with this touching drama, which follows two men in Mexico, Iván and Gerardo, as they meet, fall in love and decide to try their luck in the United States. The film moves back and forth through the men’s lives, revisiting different moments from their childhood up to the present day, where they now live in New York and are unable to reunite with their families south of the border because they left without immigration papers. I Carry You with Me won Sundance’s NEXT Innovator Award and the audience award for its category. Carlos Aguilar wrote for Remezcla, “Ravishing and unshakable, Ewing’s authentic film feels like the crossbreed between a painful memory and a hopeful dream about a place, a relationship and a fight for acceptance that’s not political but entirely humanistic.”


Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020) 100%

Steve Honigsbaum courtesy of Sundance Institute

(Photo by Steve Honigsbaum courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Distributor: Netflix

Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht teamed up to revisit a chapter of nearly forgotten history and trace its influence on attendees. In the early ‘70s, not far from Woodstock, an inclusive camp gave unprecedented training and opportunities to people with disabilities. Empowered by their experiences, LeBrecht and his fellow campers and counselors would go on to accomplish many things – including advocating for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Crip Camp won the audience award for its U.S. Documentary category. Esther Zuckerman wrote for Thrillist, “Through incredible archival footage, the documentary shows how campers at Jened were given the freedom they so often lacked in the outside world. There’s smoking, sex, partying, and a sense of pure community.”


The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) 98%

Jeong Park courtesy of Sundance Institute

(Photo by Jeong Park courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Distributor: Netflix

Written, directed by, and starring Radha Blank, this dramedy is a loosely autobiographical riff filtered through a classic-looking black-and-white lens. Blank plays a version of herself who’s nervous about approaching 40 as a single woman and struggling artist. Luckily, she rediscovers her love of hip-hop and finds a new source of inspiration for her material. Blank, a playwright and comedian off-screen, brings her sharp wit to the experience of a woman on the edge of a career breaking point, winning the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category at Sundance in the process. Aramide Tinubu wrote in Shadow and Act, “Vulnerable but vibrant in all of it’s black, white and grey-hued glory, The 40-Year-Old Version is an ode to BLACK Harlem, fearlessness and the art of putting yourself on.”


Some Kind of Heaven (2021) 93%

Becca Haydu courtesy of Sundance Institute

(Photo by Becca Haydu courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Distributor: N/A

Lance Oppenheim’s quirky documentary takes audiences to a picture-perfect retirement community in Florida known as The Villages. Despite dozens of clubs, activities and smiling faces, his camera finds subjects who aren’t so pleased with paradise but are trying to make the best of their remaining years. Writing for Variety, Dennis Harvey said, “Those nostalgic for the fond portraits of eccentric Americana in Errol Morris’ early work – and pretty much everyone else – will be delighted by Some Kind of Heaven.”


This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (2021) 100%

Pierrede Villiers courtesy of Sundance Institute

(Photo by Pierrede Villiers courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Distributor: N/A

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s debut opens in the mountains of Lesotho, where an 80-year-old woman loses her son and takes up a new cause in life: to protect her village from bureaucratic plans that would wipe it off the face of the earth. The film won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Visionary Filmmaking at Sundance. Allan Hunter of Screen International said, “This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection offers a vivid, beautifully crafted reflection on identity, community and the tension between respecting age-old traditions and accepting the seemingly unstoppable march of progress.”


Save Yourselves! (2020) 89%

Matt Clegg courtesy of Sundance Institute

(Photo by Matt Clegg courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Distributor: N/A

It’s the ultimate sci-fi nightmare: in an effort to disconnect from their addictions to smartphones, a Brooklyn couple, Jack (John Reynolds) and Su (Sunita Mani), go off the grid for some peace and quiet. Unfortunately, they picked the wrong time to swear off the internet, as the planet falls under attack by aliens. Amy Nicholson of Variety wrote about Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson’s comedy, “There’s only one joke in Save Yourselves! – this hapless generation is doomed! – but the survival comedy is delightful from start to apocalypse.”


Palm Springs (2020) 95%

Chris Willard courtesy of Sundance Institute

(Photo by Chris Willard courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Distributor: Hulu, Neon

Max Barbakow’s time-traveling romantic comedy follows Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and Nyles (Andy Samberg) on the day of Sarah’s little sister’s wedding. When Sarah looks reluctant to give a toast at the party, Nyles steps in to help, and the two strike up a rapport that eventually leads them both into a type of time warp that causes the hellish wedding day to start anew. Kevin Fallon of The Daily Beast said, “There’s a massive, Groundhog Day-evoking twist that instantly transports this from cute rom-com to high-concept deconstruction of a rom-com that illuminates our need for connection – of course, filtered through the wily charms of Lonely Island.”


Promising Young Woman (2020) 90%

Focus Features

(Photo by Focus Features)

Distributor: Focus Features

Turning the revenge narrative upside down, Emerald Fennell’s clever Promising Young Woman follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan) as an old school friend Ryan (Bo Burnham) reenters her life and reminds her of the terrible incident that caused her to drop out of med school. Forever affected by this event, Cassie decides to turn her grief into a teaching moment for those who betrayed her years ago. Joi Childs wrote in Teen Vogue, “A stellar performance from Mulligan paired with an ambitious vision from Fennell comes together to create a story that’s a bold takedown of rape culture and those that defend it.”


Miss Juneteenth (2020) 99%

Rambo Elliott courtesy of Sundance Institute

(Photo by Rambo Elliott courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Distributor: N/A

Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut feature follows a mother-daughter story deep in the heart of Texas. Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), the winner of her town’s beauty pageant title of Miss Juneteenth, lives a very different life than the one she once imagined as a reigning champion. She’s just scraping by as a single mom, trying her hardest to stay above the bills and convince her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to go after the crown to finish what she started – even if Kai isn’t too keen on following through. Valerie Complex wrote in AwardsWatch, “Miss Juneteenth is written with hope in mind, and the audience will root for Turquoise. Not a tropey caricature that Hollywood likes to box Black actresses into.”


Nine Days (2021) 82%

Wyatt Garfield courtesy of Sundance Institute

(Photo by Wyatt Garfield courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Distributor: N/A

Although divisive among some critics, many supported Edson Oda’s vision for his feature debut, Nine Days. Starring Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, Tony Hale and David Rysdahl, Nine Days takes place outside the realm of this reality for a mind-bending look at birth, existence, and life. Nine Days also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in the U.S. Dramatic category. Brian Tallerico wrote in RogerEbert.com that the film was “one of the most unexpected experiences I’ve had in almost a decade of going to Sundance.”


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