By Monica Castillo
For many movie fans, the Sundance Film Festival marks the start of a new year. It's the place to catch the premieres of indie movies you'll end up talking about for the rest of 2019. Last year saw the debuts of a number of buzzy titles, including conversion therapy drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Boots Riley's provocative Sorry to Bother You, comedian Bo Burnham's heartfelt Eighth Grade, and the captivating true story of Shirkers.
This year, MTV News will be on the frozen front lines of the star-studded festival as it unfolds in Park City, Utah — and here are the 16 films we're excited to catch.
HalaCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? A Muslim teenager must deal with her Pakistani immigrant parents' high expectations as she discovers feelings for a classmate.
Why we're excited: Just from the description, we can tell that Hala is a character we haven’t seen much in movies. She's a bicultural teenager with a lot on her mind: school, her crush, skateboarding, and conservative parents who just don't understand. Like Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird and Nijla Mu'min's Jinn, Hala offers an introspective coming-of-age story from a girl's point of view — and whose story is told by a woman director. Minhal Baig's movie sounds like the kind of project that will give Blockers star Geraldine Viswanathan a chance to flex her dramatic acting chops in the lead role.
Native SonCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? A modern-day adaptation of Richard Wright's 1940 book of the same name, the story follows Bigger "Big" Thomas, a young black man, as a shocking accident derails his efforts toward a better future.
Why we're excited: With the talents of actor Ashton Sanders (who played teenage Chiron in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight), director and visual artist Rashid Johnson, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Native Son is already one of the buzziest films in the line-up. It's premiering on the very first night of Sundance at the festival's largest theater — prime real estate for a movie to get a lot of attention. Plus, the cast includes If Beale Street Could Talk breakout Kiki Layne and Love & Basketball legend Sanaa Lathan, so expect this film to be in the conversation.
JawlineCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? Sixteen-year-old Austyn Tester, an up-and-coming social media star, is about to embark on his first nationwide tour. Will online fame and thousands of social media followers be enough to get him out of his rural hometown in Tennessee?
Why we're excited: We've heard a lot of about teens with sizable social media followings, but what can we learn when their story is told through someone else's lens? From first-time director Liza Mandelup, the documentary sounds like it will look into what it's like for Austyn to grow up in front of a live stream, with thousands of fans who wait for every new post, while desperately dreaming of a way to escape his rural surroundings.
Honey BoyCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? A dark movie about a child television star named Otis and the abuse he survives at the hands of his ex-rodeo-clown dad.
Why we're excited: Shia LaBeouf, the Even Stevens actor-turned-performance artist, stars in and wrote what's perhaps one of the most provocative movies at this year's Sundance. Inspired by LaBeouf's own life, the film deals heavily with the topic of abuse, showing how Otis (played by Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe) copes with what happens to him at two different stages in his life. Director Alma Har'el is known for pushing genre boundaries, and her previous work suggests Honey Boy will have the stylish visuals to match its wild story.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and VileCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? The story of Ted Bundy as told from the perspective of Liz Kloepfer, the woman who fell in love with him.
Why we're excited: Want to feel old? It's been 13 years since High School Musical first aired on the Disney Channel. Lately, Zac Efron has kept busy by playing good-looking goofs (Neighbors) and dashing charmers (The Greatest Showman). But in this Sundance movie, Efron will play against type as one of the most notorious serial killers of the 20th century. And he's not the only famous face in the film's cast, which includes Lily Collins as Liz, Haley Joel Osment, and Jim Parsons. The movie's director, Joe Berlinger, is a six-time Sundance veteran and a true-crime documentary filmmaker, so it will be interesting to see how he interprets Bundy's infamous story.
The Last TreeCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? When Femi, a British-Nigerian boy, moves from rural England to inner city London, he's hit with an identity crisis and must figure out who he is for himself.
Why we're excited: Unless you live in a big city, not many international movies make it to your local theater. Checking out the features in the world competition categories at festivals like Sundance may be your best chance at watching these gems on the big screen. Shola Amoo's The Last Tree looks to offer an incisive look at what it means to create an identity within shifting environments as a young black man. And considering all the news about Brexit, British identity is also experiencing its own crisis.
Paradise HillsCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? A young woman is sent to a stylish reform school, which despite its charming appearances, hides a dark secret.
Why we're excited: Alice Waddington's otherworldly feature debut looks like no other movie in the festival, and possibly like no other movie you'll see this year. But it's not just the outlandish costumes and sets that have our attention: At the center of Paradise Hills is a positive message about the power of female friendship. The star-studded cast includes Emma Roberts, Milla Jovovich, Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina, and Eiza González.
The Sunlit NightCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? In the middle of a disastrous summer, Frances rashly accepts an artist residency on a remote Norwegian island where the sun never sets and her roommate is always cranky.
Why we're excited: Jenny Slate, who broke out with the 2014 Sundance movie Obvious Child, returns to the festival with what sounds like another bittersweet and poignant performance. In The Sunlit Night, Slate plays a woman putting her life back together after her career, relationship, and family life come apart at the seams. Slate joins director David Wnendt, another Sundance alum, and Zach Galifianakis for the film.
AnimalsCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? Two free-wheeling best friends realize that sometimes growing up means growing apart.
Why we're excited: Movies like Claudia Weill's Girlfriends, Jim McKay's Our Song, and Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha have explored how women's friendships can change as one friend moves on to a different stage of life while the other gets left behind. Sophie Hyde's Animals looks to be a kind of a punk-rock riff on the story, with two wildly different creative types at its center. Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger play the two messy besties who share an apartment, drugs, and wild lifestyle until one of them decides to move on from her party days.
Little MonstersCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? A broken-hearted man, a kindergarten teacher, and a kid's TV show host must join forces to battle zombies.
Why we're excited: Lupita Nyong'o, Josh Gad, Alexander England, and zombies? Oh my! If you're not afraid of a little gore, this horror comedy sounds like the perfect way to end a long day at Sundance. Better yet: It finally gives Oscar winner Nyong'o a chance to flex her comedic chops as a kindergarten teacher who must fight a horde of the undead to protect her students.
PahokeeCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? Pahokee follows four Florida high schoolers in their senior year as they navigate personal struggles and the pressure of their community's economic hardships.
Why we're excited: In Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas' feature debut, the documentary filmmaking duo captured the daily lives of their four young subjects and a sense of what it's like to grow up along the reedy shores of Florida's Lake Okeechobee. The film stills are striking – capturing a slice of the lives of these teens and a sense of their home in the gorgeously green Everglades. It somewhat resembles last year's entrancing documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening, which took viewers on an unconventional tour through a rural part of Alabama. Pahokee is about the rituals of senior year, as told by four teens — a daughter of immigrants striving to graduate at the top of her class; a football captain; a student government president casting her first vote in the presidential election; and a drummer in the school band — as they work through their anxieties and dreams for the future.
AdamCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? A boy joins his older sister for a summer in New York City, where he finds a community and love among her LGBTQ friends.
Why we're excited: Transparent director Rhys Ernst adapts Ariel Schrag's novel about a "boy-meets-girl" love story that's complicated by a case of mistaken identity. Specifically, a case of mistaken gender identity. This satirical comedy also delves into the New York City of the early aughts and looks at the LGBTQ activism of the day.
Big Time AdolescenceCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? A 16-year-old boy follows his no-good, college-dropout mentor for life advice, much to the frustration of his family
Why we're excited: Jason Orley's script made the Black List, a survey of top unproduced screenplays in the film and TV industry, back in 2014. Now, five years later, he's making his Sundance debut with his coming-of-age story about a teenage boy (Griffin Gluck) and his wayward older friend (Pete Davidson) who used to date his sister.
ShareCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? After a teen girl finds indecent pictures of her shared throughout her school, she must figure out what to do next.
Why we're excited: The subject is a particularly tough one — not to mention, timely — and it will be interesting to see how first-time writer and director Pippa Bianco and star Rhianne Barreto navigate the issue of social media slut-shaming and bullying. The movie looks to focus mostly on Barreto's character, Mandy, and her anxiety over losing her privacy and how going scandalously viral affects her relationships with her friends and family.
To The StarsCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? The life of a withdrawn teenager is thrown upside down when she befriends the new girl in town.
Why we're excited: For this black-and-white movie, director Martha Stephens makes her heroines into western heroes who take on the world to defend each other. Iris (Kara Hayward), the quieter of the two, finds new life with the help of an outgoing personality like Maggie (Liana Liberato). But when carefree Maggie's place in their conservative Oklahoma town in the 1960s is questioned, it's up to Iris to stand up for her friend. The movie's cast also includes Shea Whigham, Malin Akerman, and Tony Hale.
Blinded by the LightCourtesy of Sundance Institute
What's it about? A 16-year-old Pakistani boy living in 1980s England finds comfort in the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Why we're excited: Directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend it like Beckham) and based on a true story, Blinded by the Light sounds like a feel-good musical about the healing power of The Boss' music. Chadha has experience directing musicals and balancing stories with serious plots with a bit of whimsy, so it'll be fun to see what she does with Springsteen's beloved catalog.