Sundance ’18 | U.S. Dramatic

by Tim Gordon

The following films will be in competition for the top U.S. Dramatic prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

American Animals
(Director and screenwriter: Bart Layton) – Lexington, Kentucky, 2004: Spencer and Warren dream of remarkable lives beyond their middle-class suburban existence. They head off to colleges in the same town, haunted by the fear they may never be special in any way. Spencer is given a tour of his school’s incredibly valuable rare book collection and describes it all to Warren. Suddenly, it hits them—they could pull off one of the most audacious art thefts in recent history, from the university’s special collections library. Convinced they can get away with it, they recruit two other friends. Suddenly, the dance of knowing what happens if they cross the line becomes all-consuming.

Blaze
(Director: Ethan Hawke; screenwriters: Ethan Hawke & Sybil Rosen) – The outlaw country movement of the ’70s and ’80s spawned many music legends—Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings spring to mind—but Blaze Foley likely isn’t the first songwriter you’d assign this status to. However, since his tragic death in 1989, the legend of Blaze has grown almost as big as the man himself. He left little behind in the way of tangible legacy, as his achingly intimate and personal songs were seldom recorded, but those close to him knew a man who stayed true to his ideals no matter how many bar fights he got into over them.

Blindspotting
(Director: Carlos López Estrada; screenwriters: Rafael Casal & Daveed Diggs) – Collin is trying to make it through his final days of probation for an infamous arrest he can’t wait to put behind him. Always by his side is his fast-talking childhood bestie, Miles, who has a knack for finding trouble. They grew up together in the notoriously rough Oakland, a.k.a. “The Town,” which has become the new trendy place to live in the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area. But when Collin’s chance for a fresh start is interrupted by a life-changing missed curfew, his friendship with Miles is forced out of its comfortable buddy-comedy existence, and the Bay boys are set on a spiraling collision course with each other.

Burden
(Director and screenwriter: Andrew Heckler) – Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) is a taciturn repo man rising through the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan in small-town South Carolina, 1996. Orphaned as a child, he is fiercely loyal to local Klan leader and toxic father figure Tom Griffin (a terrifying Tom Wilkinson). But Burden has a change of heart when he falls for Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother who stirs his social conscience. His violent break from the Klan sends him into the open arms of Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), an idealistic African American preacher, who offers him safety and a shot at redemption.

Eighth Grade
(Director and screenwriter: Bo Burnham) – Eighth-grader Kayla Day always has her phone in hand, hoping to find connections online that might make up for those she’s unable to forge in everyday life. She makes YouTube videos aimed at other adolescents dealing with similar issues—feelings of isolation, anxiety, and invisibility—but after so easily summoning this wisdom and confidence when addressing her (barely existent) audience, Kayla finds it paralyzingly difficult to apply in real situations. In the final week of a thus-far-disastrous school year—and with high school looming on the horizon—Kayla struggles to bridge the gap between how she perceives herself and who she believes she should be.

I Think We’re Alone Now
(Director: Reed Morano; screenwriter: Mike Makowsky) – Del (Peter Dinklage) is alone in the world. Literally. After the human race is wiped out, he lives in a small, empty town, methodically going from house to house, collecting batteries and other useful items, and burying the dead. He dines alone, reads, watches movies, and shelves books in the local library he’s made his home. He’s content in his solitude—until he discovers Grace (Elle Fanning), an interloper on his quiet earth. Her history and motives are obscure, and worse yet, she wants to stay.

Lizzie
(Director: Craig William Macneill; screenwriter: Bryce Kass) – 1892: Headstrong Lizzie Borden lives with her wealthy father, stepmother, and sister in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie lovingly tends to her pet pigeons and is occasionally allowed out of her dimly lit, foreboding house, but otherwise lives under strict rules set by her domineering father. When her family hires live-in maid Bridget, an uneducated Irish immigrant, the two find kindred spirits in one another. Their friendship begins with covert communication and companionship that blossoms into an intimate relationship. Meanwhile, tension builds in the Borden household, and Lizzie’s claustrophobic existence becomes increasingly more oppressive and abusive, leading to its inevitable breaking point.

Monster
(Director: Anthony Mandler; screenwriters: Radha Blank, Cole Wiley, & Janece Shaffer) – Steve Harmon, a bright, sensitive 17-year-old, stands trial for acting as a lookout during the lethal armed robbery of a Harlem bodega. Before his arrest, he was an honors student and aspiring filmmaker taking street-level snapshots and on-the-fly footage of neighborhood life. Now, Steve is seen as just another young black criminal, assumed guilty and labeled a monster. But Steve and his lawyer declare his innocence and attempt to defy the odds in a bid to win his freedom.

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Monsters & Men
(Director and screenwriter: Reinaldo Marcus Green) – One night, in front of a bodega in Brooklyn’s Bed–Stuy neighborhood, Manny Ortega witnesses a white police officer wrongfully gun down a neighborhood street hustler, and Manny films the incident on his phone. Now he’s faced with a dilemma: release the video and bring unwanted exposure to himself and his family, or keep the video private and be complicit in the injustice?

Nancy
(Director and screenwriter: Christina Choe) – Nancy is a 35-year-old temp living with her mom and cat in a modest home in a modest town. She is also an aspiring writer whose submissions are consistently rejected by the likes of the Atlantic and the Paris Review. To make up for these failures and the invisibility she feels, Nancy spins elaborate lies and hoaxes under pseudonyms on the internet. When she encounters a couple whose 5-year-old daughter went missing 30 years ago, fact and fiction begin to blur in Nancy’s mind, and she becomes increasingly convinced these strangers are her real parents.

Sorry to Bother You
(Director and screenwriter: Boots Riley) – Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a 30-something black telemarketer with self-esteem issues, discovers a magical selling power living inside of him. Suddenly he’s rising up the ranks to the elite team of his company, which sells heinous products and services. The upswing in Cassius’s career raises serious red flags with his brilliant girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a sign-twirling gallery artist who is secretly a part of a Banksy-style collective called Left Eye. But the unimaginable hits the fan when Cassius meets the company’s cocaine-snorting, orgy-hosting, obnoxious, and relentlessly optimistic CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

The Kindergarten Teacher
(Director and screenwriter: Sara Colangelo) – Stuck in Staten Island, married to a kind but oblivious husband, and living with kids that mostly ignore her, 40-year-old Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plods through her days teaching kindergarten with growing numbness. Her one source of joy is an evening poetry class across the bay in Lower Manhattan. But one day everything changes—Lisa discovers that a five-year-old boy in her class may be the poet she can only dream of being. She becomes fascinated. Could this child be a prodigy? A Mozart? Fascination turns to obsession as Lisa pushes boundaries to protect the boy from a banal life she knows too well. In a harrowing climax, Lisa risks her career, her family, and her freedom to nurture his genius and possibly tap into her own.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
(Director: Desiree Akhavan; screenwriter: Desiree Akhavan & Cecilia Frugiuele) – Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) looks the part of a perfect high school girl. But after she’s caught with another girl in the back seat of a car on prom night, Cameron is quickly shipped off to a conversion therapy center that treats teens “struggling with same-sex attraction.” At the facility, Cameron is subjected to outlandish discipline, dubious “de-gaying” methods, and earnest Christian rock songs—but this unusual setting also provides her with an unlikely gay community. For the first time, Cameron connects with peers, and she’s able to find her place among fellow outcasts.

The Tale
(Director and screenwriter: Jennifer Fox) – Jennifer, a globetrotting journalist and professor, lives an enviable life with her boyfriend in New York City. That is, until her mother finds a story Jennifer wrote at age 13 depicting a “special” relationship with two adult coaches. Reading the yellowed pages of “The Tale,” Jennifer discovers the coded details she composed 40 years earlier are quite unlike her recollection. Deeply shaken yet determined to square her version of events with the truth, Jennifer sets out to find her two coaches. Returning to the Carolina horse farm where so much transpired, Jennifer’s gangly yet tenacious seventh-grade self reawakens, and the loving stories she told herself for decades begin to unravel.

Tyrel
(Director and screenwriter: Sebastián Silva) – Tyler joins his friend on a trip to the Catskills for a weekend birthday party with several people he doesn’t know. As soon as they get there, it’s clear that (1) he’s the only black guy, and (2) it’s going to be a weekend of heavy drinking. Although Tyler is welcomed, he can’t help but feel uneasy in “Whitesville.” The combination of all the testosterone and alcohol starts to get out of hand, and Tyler’s precarious situation starts to feel like a nightmare.

Wildlife
(Director: Paul Dano; screenwriter: Paul Dano & Zoe Kazan) – Fourteen-year-old Joe is the only child of Jeanette and Jerry—a housewife and a golf pro—in a small town in 1960s Montana. Nearby, an uncontrolled forest fire rages close to the Canadian border, and when Jerry loses his job—and his sense of purpose—he decides to join the cause of fighting the fire, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. Suddenly forced into the role of an adult, Joe witnesses his mother’s struggle as she tries to keep her head above water.

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