Sundance Film Festival: A Preview

It’s been a bumpy road for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The Utah-based event, dedicated to showcasing American and world independent cinema, recently took the tough decision to cancel its physical component after a surge in COVID-19 cases. Echoing the 2021 edition, this year’s festival is now a virtual event, with the entire programme online (and, looking at the silver lining, with some films available internationally).

The documentaries on offer appear particularly strong this year. Among the must-see movies is Phoenix Rising, directed by Amy Berg. The focus is actress Evan Rachel Wood, with the camera capturing her difficult journey as she plans to publicly accuse her former boyfriend, the singer Marilyn Manson, of abusing her across their three-year relationship. The same topic also comes under the microscope in We Need to Talk About Cosby, in which W. Kamau Bell examines what happened when the former comedian Bill Cosby’s sex crime conviction was overturned last year.

Another non-fiction film that will surely have all eyes on it is The Princess, the new documentary from Ed Perkins (whose 2018 short Black Sheep was a former ASFF winner, taking home the Best of the Fest prize). Culled from a wealth of archive, Perkins now turns his attention to Princess Diana in what is the first theatrical documentary made about the late British royal. Other famous faces will also feature in the festival: Amy Poehler’s doc Lucy and Desi will look at comedians Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, whilst the three-part Netflix doc about Kanye West, jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, will also premiere.

Of the dozens of narrative features that are to be unveiled in Park City, Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick looks highly promising. A coming-of-age story set around a young woman’s sexual awakening, it stars Girls creator Dunham alongside Jon Bernthal and Jennifer Jason Leigh. A beloved son of Sundance, Jesse Eisenberg makes his feature directorial debut with When You Finish Saving The World, which is co-produced by his sometime co-star Emma Stone. Here, Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard play a mother and son going their separate ways.

British film is also present in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section, with Jim Archer’s unique-sounding Brian and Charles. Described as “a story of friendship, love, and letting go – and a 7ft tall robot that eats cabbages”, it’s a comedy that’s been shot in documentary format, and stars the co-writers David Earl and Chris Hayward. Meanwhile, out of competition, Oliver Hermanus’ Living casts Bill Nighy as a 1950s civil servant who discovers he has a terminal illness. A fascinating-looking film in what is a very stimulating line-up.

The Sundance Film Festival runs between 20-30 January. For more details, click here.

Words: James Mottram

Stills: Phoenix Rising, When You Finish Saving the World, Lucy and Desi.