Level-Upper: Riley Keough, actress, Lovesong and The Girlfriend Experience
A host of choice supporting roles (The Runaways, Magic Mike, Mad Max: Fury Road, etc.) have made 26-year-old Keough a relatively familiar face, but she shone as a lead in two very different works at Sundance 2016: Lovesong and The Girlfriend Experience. In the latter, she stars as a law student who becomes involved in engineered transactional romances; in the former, she plays the quiet and conservative Sarah, who takes a road trip with her young daughter and her best friend from college, Mindy (Jena Malone). It would be easy to call Keough’s performance in Lovesong “subtle” and “intimate”—as bride-to-be Mindy launches Sarah into a world of bachelorette parties and new friends, Sarah seems to shrink. But what’s really eye-opening is Keough’s ability to bring grace, sincerity and even love to awkward situations. –M.K.
Level-Upper: Nate Parker, director/actor/producer/writer, Birth of a Nation
Talk about a game-changer: With Birth of a Nation, 36-year-old Nate Parker, formerly known for performances in The Great Debaters, Beyond the Lights and Arbitrage, altered the trajectory of his career for good. Rarely does an actor’s directorial debut cause an uproar like the one that blazed out of Park City after Parker’s film, an epic dramatization of the life of the slave Nat Turner. Parker’s Birth of a Nation is brash and bold-strokes; what it lacks, perhaps, in subtlety, it makes up for multifold in searing emotion and vision. Helming an impassioned cast and crew, Parker proves himself a rousing leader; the man has big ideas and the gumption and drive to carry them through. –K.L.
Elizabeth Wood, director, White Girl
First-time filmmaker and recent Columbia grad Elizabeth Wood brings nuanced storytelling to her study of a young girl in love with a drug dealer in NYC, tackling white privilege, gentrification and racial stereotypes. In White Girl, the politics of gender and race are explored with vibrant camerawork and naturalistic performances, particularly that of lead actress Morgan Saylor. It’s a dynamic and uncompromising debut—Wood rejects moralizing her characters’ actions or the unjust situations they encounter; instead she lets them roam free in truthful manner. – C.A. MM
The Sundance Film Festival ran January 21-31, 2016. See our list of 2015 breakthroughs here. Images courtesy of the Sundance Institute.