Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan looks back at some of the most memorable films of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which took place from Thursday, January 28 through Wednesday, February 3.
I think every movie fan dreams of attending the Sundance Film Festival. When Awards Daily’s Joey Moser and I were in high school together, we often wanted to stage our own Sundance by wearing comfy sweaters and heavy coats, posing for photos behind bland backdrops ala EW’s iconic coverage of the fest.
While I didn’t get to go to Park City in person, I was treated to some great films over the course of six days, which included uplifting dramedies, documentaries depicting the history of real-life and fictional (Kermit!) heroes, and some directorial debuts from Hollywood’s favorite leading ladies.
This film kicked off the festival on Thursday night, and it also was one of the first to be acquired — $25 million by Apple. Believe the hype with this movie. A remake of the 2014 French film La famille Belier, this dramedy adapted from writer/director Sian Heder has all of the elements of a feel-good hit, and while it has the beats of other coming-of-age stories, the depiction of the struggles between a deaf family and a hearing daughter (Child of Deaf Adults) is very moving and frankly important. In a tweet, I wrote that there’s one completely satisfying scene in the film, and then I realized, that more than one scene fits the bill. The entire cast is exceptional, including Emilia Jones (who emotes like a young Kate Winslet), the incomparable Marlee Matlin, heartthrob-in-the-making Daniel Durant, and the revelatory Troy Kotsur. Apple really picked a good one.
If you didn’t hate the Catholic Church after the Academy Award-winning Spotlight. . .
Here comes this doc from Pedros Kos follows the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart—a group of rebellious nuns in Los Angeles. And by rebellious, I mean that they like to stay up past 6 p.m., wear non-habit clothes, and teach classes with less than 80 children. Unfortunately, the priests and cardinals in the 1960s are constantly trying to kill their vibe and their artistic spirit, to bittersweet results. Kos relies on archival interviews and footage to give you the full scope of these nuns, many of which have passed away, and innovative animated sequences that would make artsy Sister Corita Kent proud (look up her work!). While some of the soundtrack needle drops felt too on the nose (just my personal pet peeve of songs that tell you EXACTLY what’s going on in a film or TV series), this documentary’s exactness successfully highlights taboos about nuns as well as women in the 1960s (sometimes they turned to sisterhood simply to avoid the responsibilities of marriage and children).
A woman steeped in tragedy, with no one believing her or wanting to investigate her allegations. While watching Swedish director Frida Kempff’s film Knocking, I couldn’t help but think of last year’s Sundance darling, Promising Young Woman. And while both are tonal opposites, Knocking is a good companion piece to Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, and also continues a tradition of the 2021 festival supporting many female filmmakers.
Knocking starts slow, but builds to a pulsating crescendo. If you live in a downstairs apartment, after seeing this film, you’ll never think the same way about something your hear coming from upstairs. Kempff plays with and connects colors really well, from the green nail polish splattered on the balcony of Molly’s (Cecilia Milocco) apartment to the forest beach towel slathered across a beach. The entire film has a hazy, putrid film over it that really creates a mood.
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
There’s not a lot of conflict in Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary about how Sesame Street became the street where every kid learned their ABC’s. The show gets launched in the late 1960s and is immediately a success story. But that’s part of its lesson: that inclusion can not only be the right thing to do, but also universally appealing and entertaining. The real conflict in this documentary is how such a progressive idea from 50-some years ago—to attempt to target poor (mostly Black) kids so they can have a chance in education—is still novel today. It’s great to see your childhood favorites like Luis (Emilio Delgado) and Maria (Sonia Manzano) break character to speak about the impact of the show and their work and to also see how so many of the figures behind the show, like Jim Henson and series creator Jon Stone, dedicated so much of their life to it. Street Gang is a heartwarming origin story for a PBS pillar.
Actor-turned-director Fran Kranz makes his directorial debut with this drama about two sets of couples coming together under strenuous circumstances. And while the direction and writing work for what could essentially be considered a filmed play, it’s the performances from the foursome (Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton) that really make this film pop. It’s best not to reveal too much, as not to spoil, but Mass is one film you probably won’t forget anytime soon.
Actress-turned-directors are popular right now, with recent examples including Emerald Fennell and Regina King. Rebecca Hall is the latest actress to take a seat—and a pen! (she also serves as screenwriter), adapting Nella Larsen’s timeless novel from 1929 into her first film. It’s an impressive debut about one woman’s (Tessa Thompson) reunion with a childhood friend (Ruth Negga) who has spent her adulthood passing as a white woman. Everything from the music to the fading scenes is crafted with great care and attention to detail. This was one of my favorites of the entire festival.
Robin Wright has always been an actress of quiet restraint, something she demonstrates with her directorial debut Land. It’s a premise we’ve seen before, about someone wanting to go off the grid in order to deal with trauma. But unlike a lot of similar films, Wright holds her cards close as both a director and an actress, revealing only part of her hand in the final moments. The film’s strength and weakness is this reserve; you want to know more about her character, and yet, not knowing is also a gift in itself. Wright plays well off of Demian Bichir, who offers a tender supporting performance in this drama.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Probably the biggest film of the entire festival, the one that reminded you of the reason you go to the movies during awards season. Directed by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah follows an FBI informant (Lakeith Stanfield) and his relationship with Black Panther Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). In addition to stellar direction and score, this film is anchored by its two lead performances with Stanfield and Kaluuya, who’ve never been better (although with each movie they do, they both seem to outdo their last amazing performance). Would love to see Kaluuya get an Academy Award nomination, as he was most definitely snubbed for Supporting Actor with his villainous turn in Widows. His Fred Hampton is a very physical performance, having changed everything from his voice to his body to evoke the tragic figure.