Spotlight on Sundance

US indie gems you can stream from the festival

by Amber Wilkinson

Amy Adams became a breakout star from Sundance thanks to Junebug
Amy Adams became a breakout star from Sundance thanks to Junebug
After realising we'd picked four Sundance films for inclusion in this week's Stay-At-Home Seven, we thought it might be nice to put the American indie festival fully in the Streaming Spotlight. In a bid to make it personal, I've selected choices from 2005 - the first festival I was lucky enough to attend - onwards. I've also tried to avoid the big-hitters that won the Grand Jury Prize or went on to big commercial releases or Oscar nominations - so you won't find the likes of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Winter's Bone or Whiplash in this list, even though they are all more than worth your time and can be found on the usual platforms. I've also avoided the Spotlight and Premiere sections, while only choosing US films - look out for a separate Sundance With Subtitles spotlight in a few weeks. This list is by no means exhaustive, so we might return with a further US selection too in future columns.

Junebug, Amazon Prime

All the way back to 2005 for this one - and it is a little bit of a cheat when it comes to my rules, if I'm honest, as Amy Adams deservedly picked up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this, her breakout role. At Sundance, however, Phil Morrison's film lost out to Ira Sachs' Forty Shades Of Blue in the US Dramatic Competition. Adams, who plays a young pregnant woman who idolises her sister-in-law, isn't the only reason to check out this southern drama packed with romance, comedy and tragedy - Alessandro Nivola, Embeth Davidtz and Benjamin McKenzie are all on top form. Morrison has a sharp eye for character and spaces and, as he grew up in the south himself, this one also feels very close to home.

Teeth, Shudder

Another year, this time 2007, and another terrific central performance from a relative newcomer as Jess Weixler made her mark in Mitchell Lichtenstein's dark horror comedy - and was told by an air stewardess on the plane home that she had to fly back to Park City to pick up her Sundance acting award. She plays Dawn, a virgin who has an anatomical quirk that gives her considerably more bite than most when it comes to bad boyfriends. Weixler deadpans her way through the destruction perfectly as predators become accidental prey. Given that this film is about vagina dentata, Lichtenstein could have sunk his teeth into basic humour, but this is much smarter than that, skewering stereotypes of femininity and societal expectations. Also, it's damned funny, even if it might make male audience members wince.

This Is Martin Bonner, My5.tv

When Sundance first created the Next section 10 years ago, it was considered a bit of a disaster by critics. At the time, the festival put a strict 'low or no budget' price on the films they picked, which turned out to be very restrictive. Over the years since, the category has struggled with its identity but has become, largely, more of a space for new voices - although somehow David Lowery's A Ghost Story ended up in there the year after he had worldwide success with Pete's Dragon. These days, it's become more like an overspill space from the main US Dramatic Competition and, as old names tend to get first pick for that grander section, it has also been a good place to find new voices. Among them, Chad Hartigan, whose gentle drama took home the audience award in that section 2013. His tale of the unlikely friendship that blossoms between Martin and Travis (Paul Eenhoorn and Richmond Arquette, who it's a shame we don't see more of in films) has a poetic sweep that finds complexity in character and redemption in unexpected moments. Read our chat with Arquette and Hartigan here and our interview with Eenhoorn here.

Blue Caprice, Rakuten TV, Microsoft

Arguably, 2013 was the year the Next section really began to find its feet, with Martin Bonner and the likes of Computer Chess and A Teacher also in the selection. This psychological drama - renamed with the much less enigmatic title The Washington Snipers when it went on general release - is the other one I'd put on your watch list. French director Alexandre Moors dramatises the run-up to the Beltway sniper attacks to consider the psychological drivers that led to the killings. A slow-burn study initially, it considers how young Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond) became, in essence, a child soldier created by the older John Allen Muhammed (Isaiah Washington). Marked out by unfussy direction from Moors - that makes the murders all the more chilling - and great performances, there's a lot going on under the Blue Caprice bonnet.

Cop Car, Netflix

In 2015, It Follows understandably drew most of the heat in the Midnight selection but this little gem was also in the line-up. There's a B-movie vibe about Jon Watts' tale of two kids who steal a police car - and I mean that in the best sense of the phrase. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) get more than they bargain for when they run away in a cop car they find in a gully - when the unpleasant officer who owns it (Kevin Bacon on fine form and ensuring the "Six Degrees of..." game ensnares another generation) gives chase. Watts keeps the action taut and the whole enterprise is elevated by great central performances from his young stars. Watts went on to direct Spider-Man: Homecoming after this and is now continuing with the franchise. Marvel's gain is the indie world's loss.

The Tale, Amazon Prime

Jennifer Fox's film had been in the pipeline for a while but its arrival at Sundance in the wake of the Weinstein scandal breaking was an immaculate piece of timing. I think it unfairly garnered less attention than it should have because it was bought by HBO. It was a pretty rare move by the TV network, which is more known for snapping up documentaries and though it ensured it went to a large telly audience, it also meant it didn't get the chance to make the cinematic waves it could have. Fox drew on her own experience of being groomed as a child to show the way that what is real and what remembered can muddle in the mind with the passing of the years. She shows how she confronted her own memory of being less mature than she actually was when she was groomed, illustrating how this sort of rationalisation as an adult can protect abusers. Featuring strong central performances from Laura Dern, Jason Ritter and Isabelle Nélisse, Fox also took great care to fully protect her young star even when shooting the film's toughest scenes. Next time you watch a film about teenagers in romantic relationships where the cast are much older than the roles they are supposed to be playing, Fox's film will make you think long and hard about the reality.

Madeleine's Madeleine, MUBI

Josephine Decker's latest film Shirley, will be available to stream later this summer - and you should definitely catch it when it is - so now's a good time to catch up with some of her earlier work. This, her third film, saw newcomer Helena Howard become a critics' darling overnight and it's a surprise she hasn't done more film work since, although she does star in Amazon's upcoming young adult drama series The Wilds. She is magnetic in the central role as a young woman with mental health issues, whose anxiety is our constant companion in a film that plays around with form. Decker knows how to unsettle and dislocate an audience and as Madeline's psychological with her mother (Miranda July) and her acting teacher (Molly Parker) ramp up it becomes a trippy journey into uncertainty. Read our interview with cinematographer Ashley Connor.

I have picked a winner for the short selection this week because it's a good example of how directors can start small and then go on to success with expanded versions of their work. Jim Cummings' Thunder Road - showing a police officer's blackly comic meltdown at his mother's funeral, all shot in a single take - won the Grand Jury Prize in the short section in 2016. Cummings went on to kickstart the funding for the feature it would become and that, in turn, would win a slew of awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW. You can view the full-length film on Netflix and, don't worry, this short isn't a spoiler as the film opens with a version of this scene.

Thunder Road from Jim Cummings on Vimeo.

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