Sundance Film Festival: 10 Park City Breakthroughs 2017

Let these 10 faces be your antidote to every name who elbowed his film into the Sundance Film Festival line-up as so-and-so’s nephew.

This is the fourth year in a row that we’ve published our Park City Breakthroughs list, of talents who bloomed freshest in our consciousness from Sundance’s feature slate. It’s also the first year the festival beat us to the punch: Last week, juries awarded an inaugural Breakthrough Performance award to Roxanne Roxanne star Chanté Adams and a Breakthrough Director one to Novitiate director Maggie Betts. And while many of the most-lauded titles this year came from established filmmakers like David Lowery and Luca Guadagnino, the modest praise that met many of this year’s crop did bear a few bona fide star-is-born moments—for example, when audiences laid eyes on Danielle Macdonald, star of Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, whose explosive charisma festival director John Cooper compared to Jennifer Lawrence’s. With their purchase of the film—for an impressive $9.5 million—distributor Fox Searchlight is betting on that star rising quickly this year. Not everyone on our list has been granted that level of backing yet, but you should look out for their work on the festival circuit this year (and many years to come, we hope).

Team MovieMaker expanded this Sundance to seven writers on the ground—Carlos Aguilar, Caleb Hammond, Daniel Joyaux, Maddy Kadish, Kelly Leow, Jeff Meyers, Andy Young—meaning we cast a larger net in 2017 than we have before, but inevitably there’s a film or two that slips through our grasp. (We have a lengthy honorable mention list that includes the post-production and sound team of Bitch, Newness DP Sean Stiegemeier, L.A. Times DP Nicholas Wiesnet, actors Madeleine Weinstein and Harris Dickinson of Beach Rats and Walking Out composer Ernst Reijseger.) Putting aside any claim to definitiveness, then, we present the following moviemakers on the rise.

Timothée Chalamet (actor, Call Me By Your Name)

Timothée Chalamet at the premiere of Call Me By Your Name. Photograph by Brandon Cruz

When the credits started rolling at the close of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, many viewers at the Yarrow Theatre got up to leave—then stopped on the stairs, arrested by an extended close-up take of Timothée Chalamet staring into a fireplace. It’s hard to describe exactly what Chalamet was doing in those minutes, beyond, well, thinking and feeling… even so, it was fascinating. Chalamet plays the film’s 17-year-old protagonist Elio, caught in the throes of a heady romance, as cocky, uncertain, broody, sweet, lustful—teenage-boyhood epitomized. He’s in almost every frame for 130 minutes and effortlessly commands the screen opposite veterans Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar. The 21-year-old American actor is best known from TV’s Homeland, as well as supporting parts in recent indies Miss Stevens, The Adderall Diaries and One & Two. It’s clear that he’s now ready for the major league. – Kelly Leow

Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan (directors, Whose Streets?)

Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan at the premiere of Whose Streets?. Photograph by Ryan Kobane

With their documentary Whose Streets?, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, both first-time filmmakers, take us deep into the chaos, rage and pain of the African-American community in Ferguson, Missouri after the police shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, to death on August 9, 2014. Shot amidst the ensuing protests, the film reflects a sense of immediacy and urgency and a perspective that the news media often left out. The footage (totaling over 400 hours) comes from 40 different sources. Folayan and Davis weave together video of the rawness on the streets (some from citizen journalists’ cell-phone cameras) with stories of the home lives of three leaders in the movement. Folayan, an activist and former pre-med student, and Davis, interdisciplinary artist in St. Louis (with a piece in the permanent collection of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture), highlight the power and importance of empathy in storytelling. – Maddy Kadish

Keegan DeWitt (composer, Golden Exits, Newness, The Incredible Jessica James and The Hero)

Composer Keegan DeWitt (center, gray) at a Q&A for Golden Exits

Composer Keegan DeWitt has come to prior Sundance editions with multiple films in tow—in 2016, for example, he scored Morris From America and Kate Plays Christine. Having four films at the festival this year, though—with Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, Drake Doremus’ Newness, Jim Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James and Brett Haley’s The Hero in 2017—qualifies him as a true Park City all-star. I was particularly impressed by his Golden Exits score, which is the heart and soul of the film, letting the viewer in on what is really going on with the characters when they can’t voice that themselves. Since DeWitt’s score for Perry’s 2014 film Listen Up Philip was heavy on the brass section, Perry told Dewitt that Golden Exits could have no brass; the new film’s tender string-centric music softens its characters’ rough edges. It humanizes them and their plights for brief moments. – Caleb Hammond

Francis Lee (writer and director, God’s Own Country)

Francis Lee. Photograph by Agatha A. Nitecka

A trained thespian, Francis Lee acted for over two decades in British television and film. (You’ve seen him in Topsy-Turvy.) A few years ago, however, he decided to give up his career in front of the camera to fully embrace his aspirations as a storyteller. God’s Own Country, his debut feature following a series of successful shorts, is a delicate and magnificently acted romance that centers on John (Josh O’Conor, a stunning newcomer himself), a young man who must confront his self-imposed emotional isolation when a Romanian immigrant, Ghoerghe (Alec Secareanu), comes to help out with the family farm in rural Yorkshire. Testosterone laced with tenderness is the lens Lee uses to observe masculinity, in breathtaking fashion, through two performances that capture an unsentimental but honest love. To say Lee is a talented writer-director to watch is an understatement. – Carlos Aguilar

Zoe Lister-Jones (director, writer, producer and actress, Band Aid)

Zoe Lister-Jones at the premiere of Band Aid. Photograph by Jemal Countess

Every year at Sundance, there’s a new batch of high-concept indie comedies that all look a little too Sundance-y. Band Aid, about a feuding couple who turn their fights into songs and form an indie rock band, initially seemed a likely culprit. But Zoe Lister-Jones, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in Band Aid, never allows the film to feel contrived. Lister-Jones is a revelation: Her dialogue feels emotionally honest, the songs she wrote (and plays and sings—she does it all!) for the movie are hilarious and infectious, and her acting impressively fills both the comic and dramatic demands of the script with lovely nuance. While not every single element in the film works, the remarkable talents of Lister-Jones are undeniable. – Daniel Joyaux

Danielle Macdonald (actress, Patti Cake$)

Danielle Macdonald in Patti Cake$

With a few minor roles to her name, Australian charmer Danielle Macdonald arrived in Park City as a virtually unknown actress and left as an instant star, thanks to her fantastic work as the title character in Geremy Jasper’s inventive and endearing first feature, Patti Cake$. Daydreaming of becoming a rapper, Patti is a girl from “Dirty Jersey” whose life is divided between her part-time job as a bartender, caring for her grandmother, and writing songs alongside her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). Financially disadvantaged, and lacking support from her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), who has her own musical goals, Patti struggles to find confidence. Without missing a beat, Macdonald nails both the rap battles and dramatic sequences with crowd-pleasing ease. Sassy, vulnerable, defiant and lyrically gifted, the young performer showcases her wide range while hilariously winning hearts. – C.A.

Dave McCary (director, Brigsby Bear)

Dave McCary. Photograph by Nate Slevin

 
Comedy nerds familiar with McCary’s exceptional work with comedy group Good Neighbor and Saturday Night Live might be expecting a straight-up comedy from Brigsby Bear (especially since The Lonely Island, Phil Lord and Chris Miller are producers). While his feature debut is absolutely hilarious, at its core lies a unique and sincere drama about family, friendship and connection that showcases McCary’s talent for balancing tone and executing a fresh, creative vision. As the film unfolds, Brigsby becomes a love letter to intense fandom and the power of storytelling, one that’ll no doubt inspire passionate young filmmakers to grab their friends and just make movies—much like McCary did. – Andy Young
Todd McMullen (Director of photography, Walking Out)

Walking Out, shot by DP Todd McMullen

In television, directors may come and go, but it’s the DP who is responsible for idiot-proofing a show’s look and feel. It can be a good gig, but one that rarely earns notice or accolades. Todd McMullen deserves both. The unsung hero of the critically acclaimed series Friday Night Lights, McMullen has brought his evocative visual style to shows like The Leftovers and The Newsroom (as well as Netflix’s upcoming Santa Clarita Diet). But its his first feature, Walking Out, that has provided him with the proper canvas for his work. Kudos to directors Andrew and Alex Smith, who were smart to recruit McMullen for their outdoor Montana survival drama. He matches TV’s need for speed and efficiency with imagery that looks several times their indie budget. – Jeff Meyers
Ashleigh Murray (actress, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train)

Ashleigh Murray in Deidra & Laney Rob a Train. Photograph by Fred Hayes

It’s hard to pin down actor Ashleigh Murray’s age while watching her in Sydney Freeland’s chipper teen caper Deidra & Laney Rob a Train. A quick look-up on IMDb offers no real answers. Is Murray in the ballpark of the over-achieving teen character she plays in her Sundance debut, or is she one of those blessed individuals who defies temporal classification? Whatever the answer, Murray clearly has charisma to burn, and her star turn as a smarty-pants, opportunistic high school senior saddled with looking after her siblings when mom is arrested proves she’s ready for the limelight. And graduating from short films to her first feature couldn’t have come at a better time. Murray has just landed the role of Josie McCoy (of Josie and the Pussycats) in the CW’s live-action Archie Comics series Riverdale. No doubt more is to come. – J.M.
Jessica Williams (actress, The Incredible Jessica James)

Jessica Williams in The Incredible Jessica James

It was common in the Golden Age of Hollywood for studios to tailor entire films around the talents of a particular star, though that’s a strategy rarely seen in indie filmmaking (barring exceptions like Frances Ha). Yet that’s exactly what writer-director Jim Strouse did for Jessica Williams in the Sundance 2017 Closing Night film, The Incredible Jessica James. It’s not hard to see why. Williams, a former correspondent for The Daily Show, is magnetic in her first starring role. From the opening credit sequence—a colorful, Spike Lee-esque dance through her Brooklyn apartment building—to dialogue and outfits that only she could pull off, Williams lights up the screen with her unique charisma. The audience fell for her, and you will too. – D.J. MM
The Sundance Film Festival ran January 19-29, 2017. See our list of 2016 breakthroughs here; for more from this year, check out our 2017 Sundance Survey here. Images courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

1 Comment

  1. Vincent Le

    February 6, 2017 at 10:42 am

    Can’t wait to see Call Me By Your Name! Really liked Timothee Chalamet in Homeland so I’m excited to see what he can do. Great to hear that he’s a commanding screen presence!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

[i]
[i]