The Sundance Film Festival went virtual for the second time this year, due mainly to surging coronavirus cases caused by the Omicron variant. But despite the lack of in-person screenings, parties and premieres, the event delivered a new slate of kooky comedies, powerful documentaries and indie dramas. Women also dominated, with 56 percent of overall competition titles directed by female moviemakers. Case in point: Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love documentary — about two scientists who fall in love on (and with) volcanoes — sparked a bidding war. The result was an acquisition by National Geographic Documentary Films for a seven-figure worldwide rights deal that will include a full theatrical release. Here’s what else you need to know about who won, who wowed and how to watch.

Winning Tickets
In the US Dramatic Competition, a horror film nabbed the top prize for the first time in Sundance history. Nanny, written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu in her feature film debut, tells the story of Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant (played by Anna Diop) who spends her days raising someone else’s daughter so she can earn enough money to be reunited with her son. Soon, nightmarish visions begin haunting Aisha in this offering that is both chilling  and lyrical.

Navalny took home the Festival Favorite award, selected by audiences from all categories of the show. The documentary follows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during his recovery in Berlin, following an assassination attempt. It paints a rich picture of the well-known public figure, ranging from political activist to goofy Call of Duty-playing dad. Accepting the award, director Daniel Roher said, “Navalny would be so thrilled if he knew he won the People’s Choice award.” (Navalny is currently serving a two-year prison sentence in Russia.) World Dramatic Grand Jury winner Utama and World Documentary Grand Jury winner All That Breathes also made a splash for their poignant and powerful messages about climate change.

Streamers Steal the Show
In past years, all-night bidding wars between filmmakers and sales agents for Sundance’s most popular titles would have resulted in cinematic distribution by top studios headlined by theatrical premieres. Not so at this festival, where streaming networks were among Park City’s most aggressive buyers. Cha Cha Real Smooth from 24-year-old writer, director, producer and co-star Cooper Raiff has been heralded as a near-perfect romantic comedy about a college grad and a young mother, played by Dakota Johnson, who’s raising a teenage daughter with autism. It won the Audience Award in the US Dramatic Category, yet unlike similar indie darlings that preceded it (Little Miss Sunshine, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), Raiff’s sophomore effort (following his 2020 debut, Shithouse) wasn’t snatched up by a conventional movie studio. Instead, Apple TV outbid competitors to buy the film for $15 million. It was this year’s biggest deal, yet less than the record-setting $25 million Apple spent on CODA at last year’s Sundance.

Other titles were acquired by both studios and streamers to be released via the hybrid model that’s become popular during the pandemic. That will be the case for Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, starring Emma Thompson as a lonely middle-aged widow who sparks a romance with a male escort. It sold to Searchlight and Hulu for $7.5 million and may be released in theaters and on the streamer. Dakota Johnson’s second Sundance appearance comes in Am I OK?, a coming-of-age story about a woman grappling with her sexuality. It was bought by Warner Bros. and HBO Max and will premiere at a yet-to-be-determined date. Documentaries including The Janes (HBO), Lucy and Desi (Amazon Prime), We Need to Talk About Cosby (Showtime) and Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy (Netflix) are also enjoying streaming platform releases.

Reflections of Reality
Other Sundance films highlighted the cultural and political conversations Americans are currently having. Call Jane, starring Sigourney Weaver and Elizabeth Banks, focuses on a woman in the 1960s who’s unable to get a legal abortion. For help, she turns to a suburban group of women called the Jane Collective to fight for herself and women’s rights at large—a topic that will resonate with many viewers today. Downfall: The Case Against Boeing hits Netflix on February 18, investigating how the crash of two new Boeing MAX 737 planes was tied to corporate greed and misinformation disseminated among the public. And The American Dream and Other Fairytales explores issues of income inequality, specifically as it relates to Disneyland employees who are often employed without healthcare or don’t make enough money to pay for both rent and groceries. Whether in-person or virtual, Sundance shines a welcome light on independent film and the talented people who create them.

Kathleen Thompson
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