9 breakout Sundance movies to watch for in 2018

Movies about teenage girls, racism, infertility, demons, and the apocalypse were the festival’s highlights.

The 2018 Sundance Film Festival didn’t yield any true standouts — nothing like last year’s Call Me By Your Name or The Big Sick — but a general lack of buzz doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of movies worth watching. Horror, high school stories, infertility comedies, post-apocalyptic dramas, and more ensured that the festival was a succession of startling and sometimes unsettling delights.

Here are nine films in particular that we’ll all be talking about later this year.

Madeline’s Madeline

Helena Howard and Molly Parker in Madeline’s MadelineSundance Institute
Helena Howard and Molly Parker in Madeline’s Madeline.

Madeline’s Madeline is the story of a teenager named Madeline (the outstanding Helena Howard, in what’s sure to be a breakout role) who, after spending time under medical supervision for mental health issues, is finding new life and a community away from her obsessive, codependent mother (Miranda July). She finds solace in a theater group — but even though the woman who leads the group (Molly Parker) presents herself as a supportive collaborator for Madeline, it starts to become clear that she’s gleaning more from the relationship than may be healthy for the girl.

Writer/director Josephine Decker forgoes a straightforward telling of the story, opting instead for something that feels woozy and original from the start, disorienting by design, drawing us into Madeline’s muddled and sometimes overheated headspace in a way that feels more governed by dream logic than reality. It’s a stunner of a work from Decker and a new twist on the well-trodden theater troupe subgenre.

Madeline’s Madeline is awaiting distribution.

The Tale

Laura Dern and Isabel Nelisse in The TaleKyle Kaplan/Sundance Institute
Laura Dern and Isabelle Nelisse in The Tale.

Jennifer Fox is best known as a documentarian, but for The Tale — which she called “pure memoir” in a Q&A following the film’s Sundance premiere — she shifts to a scripted format, transforming her own harrowing story of being molested as a 13-year-old into a sensitive, innovative, even beautiful feature that cuts right at the heart of the most difficult conversations we’re having as a country.

Laura Dern plays the grown-up version of Fox as she’s slowly forced to grapple with the fact that the relationship she once had with her 40-year-old swim coach wasn’t a relationship between two consenting adults, and struggles to find her place in her own story — is she a victim? A survivor? A heroine? The Tale is not a film that wears its importance on its sleeve, because it’s deeply personal. But from the vantage point of its January 2018 premiere, it feels prescient, almost prophetic.

The Tale will premiere later this year on HBO.

Private Life

Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter, and Paul Giamatti in Private LifeJojo Whilden/Sundance Institute
Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter, and Paul Giamatti in Private Life.

Eleven years after the Sundance debut of her highly acclaimed feature The Savages, Tamara Jenkins returned to the festival with Private Life: a funny, moving film about a couple’s maddening and harrowing struggle with infertility. Starring Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, it offers wise, funny, and often surprising commentary about pain, love, and makeshift families.

It achieves this by irreverently locating the humor in the suffering — injecting hormones into buttocks, having to deliver semen samples for IVF, readying the house for a home visit from an adoption agency — without making light of those experiences. The result is an accessible and complex portrait of two people whose ardent shared desire for a child leads them in some unconventional directions, and it’s a joy to watch whether or not you can relate to their experience.

Private Life will premiere later this year on Netflix.

Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher in Eighth GradeSundance Institute
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.

Frankly, I have no idea why Eighth Grade is as good as it is. YouTube personality and comedian Bo Burnham has never, to my knowledge, been an eighth-grade girl, but he nails the experience in this film, which he wrote and directed.

Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla, who’s in the final days of her hormonal eighth grade year, and desperate to have some friends and not feel like such a loser. Her story yields an understated film that doesn’t patronize Kayla’s interior life, but man does it know what it’s like to feel like the weird one in the room, with no idea how to fit in. And as a bonus, if you didn’t attend middle school in the age of YouTube, Eighth Grade’s portrayal of adolescence in the digital era will send you into fits of gratefulness.

Eighth Grade will be distributed by A24.

I Think We’re Alone Now

Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage in I Think We’re Alone NowSundance Institute
Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage in I Think We’re Alone Now.

I Think We’re Alone Now is a post-apocalyptic drama about the last man on earth (Peter Dinklage) and the girl who finds him (Elle Fanning). Directed and shot by Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale), it falls somewhere between a relationship drama and an exploration of what it would be like to be completely alone in the world.

Rendered in beautiful landscapes and sensitive detail by Morano, and with two exceptionally strong performances from Dinklage and Fanning, the movie doesn’t so much tell you that they’re growing to care for one another as let you bear witness to their developing relationship as it happens. And when it takes an unexpected turn midway through, it becomes an intriguing (if a bit clunky) contemplation of what makes us human.

I Think We’re Alone Now is awaiting distribution.

Monsters and Men

Anthony Ramos and John David Washington in Monsters and MenAlystyre Julian/Sundance Institute
Anthony Ramos and John David Washington in Monsters and Men.

Triptych films can be hard to pull off — you need a strong central idea around which each of the three stories can revolve, and your audience needs to feel as if all three stories are connected in some way without getting frustrated by the brevity of each story. (Moonlight and Certain Women are two recent stellar examples.) Monsters and Men is a terrific triptych with a painful central event: a police shooting of a black man.

Each of the film’s three segments revolves around a different character, and the shooting touches each of their lives in different ways. One man (Anthony Ramos) witnessed it; one is a black cop (John David Washington) who’s struggling to figure out how he should feel about it; and one is a rising baseball star (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who feels a tug toward activism as a result of it. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green seems equally interested in making a visually beautiful film and making a film with a social conscience, and his lead actors turn in sensitive, strong performances that explore how a whole community can be affected by a single devastating event.

Monsters and Men will be distributed by Neon.

Sorry to Bother You

Lakeith Stanfield appears in Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Doug Emmett/Sundance Institute
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You.

Careening from office comedy to something like horror, Sorry to Bother You is a weird and funny and unsettling debut feature from rapper Boots Riley. It’s a bonkers satirical comedy starring Lakeith Stanfield, who plays an Oakland native in desperate need of a job; ultimately, he winds up at a telemarketing firm, where he finds success by using his “white voice.”

To say the movie is playing with a lot of ideas is an understatement. It’s a live-wire comedy with a social conscience — a commentary on race, labor, and American capitalism (also starring Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer) that veers in so many directions that it’s best to just strap in and let it take you where it wants you to go. It’s about exploitation and profit, it’s about the fetishization of black bodies and the indignities of code-switching, and it’s about giving up your dignity and trying to find love, all in a vaguely dystopian magical realist packaging.

Sorry to Bother You will be distributed by Annapurna Pictures.

Hereditary

HereditaryA24
Hereditary.

Hereditary is one of the creepiest and most terrifying horror films I’ve seen at Sundance since The Witch in 2015, with which it shares a fixation on the supernatural. But that’s more or less where the similarities end.

With Toni Collette in an unforgettable, no-holds-barred leading role, Hereditary is best when it leans on uncanny, unsettling images (like a home rendered at first as a dollhouse, or a frozen, terrifying expression on a face) to make it feel like icy fingers are at your back. Even when it runs off the rails, it’s a hard film to shake, and as with recent films like It Comes at Night and Green Room, it’s destined to be the hit of the art-house horror circuit this year.

Hereditary will be released by A24 on June 8, 2018.

Blindspotting

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal in BlindspottingSundance Institute
Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal in Blindspotting.

Blindspotting was Sundance’s opening-night selection for 2018, and it was in many ways the ideal choice. Starring Hamilton alums Daveed Diggs and Jasmine Cephas Jones alongside Rafael Casal, the film feels shaky at times, but the authenticity and passion of its characters are unmistakable.

First-time director Carlos López Estrada works from an often very funny screenplay by Diggs and Casal to tell a story about two Oakland natives navigating their gentrifying hometown, neighborhood violence, police brutality, probation, and ordinary life. The movie takes some bold chances, and it succeeds enough to make it worth watching. (And yes, Diggs raps.)

Blindspotting will be distributed by Lionsgate.