By Mary Sollosi
January 27, 2020 at 01:55 PM EST
Netflix; Sundance Institute; Liam Daniel

Happy Sundance, indie lovers! The Park City fest kicked off Thursday night, and the whole town has been on the lookout for breakout hits and exciting new talent all weekend.

Every time the lights go down on a Sundance premiere, hope hangs heavy in the air that a major discovery lies ahead, and that this screening was the right choice over the five others happening at the same time, where the audiences share the same wish. It’s no different for the EW team on the ground in Park City, spread between theaters and running to screenings, hoping every time for something new, exciting, and thought-provoking. Here’s a Sundance diary of EW’s weekend in Utah, starting with…

THURSDAY

Opening night brought the premieres of two Sundance alumni, with Carlos López Estrada’s spoken-word poetry film Summertime, an unconventional piece which the filmmaker described to EW as “a big exercise of letting go of control, letting go of the structure, embracing the unknown.”Later in the evening came Justin Simien’s horror satire Bad Hair, a “quintessential black American story,” as Simien says, and which EW reviewed as “ambitious, at times joyous filmmaking.”

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

The starriest of the day 1 picks, however, had to be Lana Wilson’s documentary Miss Americana, about Taylor Swift. Outside the Eccles Theater, in the freezing cold and with little hope of actually getting in, the waitlist line was enormous and unflinchingly united in both their devotion to Swift and their dedication to singing half of her catalog as they waited for her to arrive. Inside, the premiere crowd was no less enthusiastic for the doc, which didn’t pile on revelations about her life — though there were a few — so much as it offered insight into her evolving philosophies and engaged with notions of celebrity, femininity, and patriotism. Half of Park City must have fallen asleep humming Lover’s earwormiest tracks to themselves, looking forward to…

FRIDAY

…When all it took to knock Tay’s storytelling pop jams right out of your head was the indelible, Twitter-approved image of Succession’s Nicholas Braun rapping Migos’ “Hannah Montana” in Janicza Bravo’s Zola, one of Friday’s most hotly anticipated premieres. After reading a now-legendary Twitter thread from October 2015, Bravo set out to make a “compelling, wild, fun, upsetting piece of comedy,” she teased earlier this month. She succeeded: EW deemed it “the stripper tweet-storm movie you’ve been waiting for.”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Meanwhile, in a far-off land (meaning the Ray theater, down the street) Brenda Chapman’s fairy-tale mashup Come Away had its premiere. The “reimagined origin story” for Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, as star David Oyelowo described it to EW, provided some fantastical counterprogramming to the scrappy indies we expect from Sundance. At the same time, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear was weirding people out at the Library theater and providing a “spectacularly trippy showcase,” per EW, for star Aubrey Plaza.

The afternoon brought the premiere of the Miss Juneteenth, the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Channing Godfrey Peoples. The slow-burning Southern drama stars a fantastic Nicole Beharie as a former beauty queen who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps as Miss Juneteenth. Following the film, I personally called my mother and wept while describing the entire plot in excruciating detail. At the same time, Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself screened at the Eccles, where neither of the EW staffers in attendance were particularly enthralled.

Throughout the day, EW was hosting panels about the power of cinema to effect change in the world at the NRDC Impact Lounge as part of the EW x NRDC Sundance Film Festival Panel Series. Wilmer Valderrama, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Alec Baldwin all popped in for lively chats with EW’s Editor-in-Chief J.D. Heyman.

“As I’ve become more of a well-known actress, I’ve felt a certain responsibility,” said Louis-Dreyfus, at Sundance for the Downhill premiere, of her activism. “As something Norman Lear once said, ‘Celebrity is something you spend.’ And, so, I thought, ‘Well, I need to spend this on something of worth.’ And this seems quite worthwhile.” Baldwin, who produced Sundance film Beast Beast, reflected on how the modern coming-of-age-film depicts a new era. “Kids grew up, when I was younger, in a world in which all that was bad was something that was served up at a certain time and then it was put away,” the actor said. “Now, kids are growing up in a world where all day long on your phone and on TV and on CNN, it’s global warming and a shooting and the president’s a maniac.”

Liam Daniel/Sundance film festival

The buzzy premieres continued into the night, when the Eccles hosted the premiere of true-story drama Ironbark, which EW called a “decorous, solidly smart thriller” with a central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. “This is the story of a very average hero,” Cumberbatch told EW of the film. “It’s quiet heroics in a very loud world.”

Next up in the Eccles was Worth, the third film in a row from director Sara Colangelo to debut in Park City, with a Michael Keaton performance that impressed EW staffers. Finally, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, about a pregnant teenage girl from Pennsylvania who travels to New York with her cousin to get an abortion, opened at the Ray. EW called it “an urgent, extraordinary film for this very moment,” and it’s one of the most devastatingly humane things I’ve ever seen.

SATURDAY

Is it only day three? Here comes Elisabeth Moss with a typically great performance as Shirley Jackson in Josephine Decker’s Shirley, described by EW as “a tale steeped in psychosexual tension and manipulation.” Sign me up!

Later in the day, staffers caught On the Record, the controversial documentary about Russell Simmons’ alleged sexual abuse co-directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering — and you might have also heard about the producer who stepped down from the film. The doc — which featured a new song from Lauryn Hill — got a standing ovation before it even began; throughout its runtime, it “never feels like less than required viewing,” our critic wrote.

Hulu

I set aside five hours of my day to catch Nanette Burstein’s Hillary, the four-hour docuseries about the life and times of Hillary Clinton headed to Hulu this spring. I recommend the series; I do not necessarily recommend taking in all four episodes, and all the tumultuous history that the divisive former Secretary of State has seen in her lifetime, in a single emotional sitting. Clinton herself was in attendance for the screening, and gave a Q&A afterward during which she had plenty to say, including that she thinks Sundance is “fabulous!” Meanwhile, my EW colleagues were less than thrilled with Rodrigo Garcia’s opioid crisis drama Four Good Days.  

Over at the NRDC Impact Lounge, the day included conversations with Ron Howard about his California wildfires doc Rebuilding Paradise; Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz about sci-fi flick Nine Days, and Julie Taymor about her unconventional Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias. “We have a problem thinking that [violence equates] entertainment,” she said. “I’m looking for the positive energy.”

Focus Features

Actually, forget positive energy: the disturbing horror film Relic screened late that night at the Ray, “and don’t you dare sleep on it,” warns EW’s Katie Hasty. But the most talked-about premiere of the night had to be Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, about a promising young [vigilante] played by Carey Mulligan who lures in predators by faking drunk, then turns the tables on them. The film’s more shocking bits “feel destined to be debated long after the last outrageous frame,” EW’s critic predicted — and the movie’s use of Paris Hilton’s exquisite and timeless 2006 classic “Stars Are Blind” became the unlikely talk of the fest. Sing it with me: Even though the gods are crazy…

SUNDAY

If you find it a little too on-the-nose that my first post-Hillary screening was the Gloria Steinem biopic, that’s your problem. Next up, I was heartbroken to miss Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild follow-up Wendy— the second Peter Pan reimagining of the fest! — but our critic’s response that Zeitlin “tends to strip away nearly every necessary aspect of plot and character development in his strenuous pursuit of whimsy” didn’t live up to my own high hopes for the film. (Though honestly that hardly even sounds like a bad thing to me, and I still fully expect to love it).

Meanwhile, Eva Longoria, who appears in Eugene Ashe’s period romance Sylvie’s Love, debuting Monday, stopped by the NRDC suite to talk to EW Editor-in-Chief J.D. Heyman about her life in activism and commitment to telling diverse stories.

Most of the ticketholders (including EW’s David Canfield) at Sunday’s Palm Springs premiere were shut out of the screening at the Library, evidently due to Andy Samberg’s many famous friends (and attendant entourages) showing up. “There’s about to be a riot,” a very agitated David told me after he escaped. “The best way to describe it is an R-rated rom-com set at a wedding — with a twist,” Samberg had previously teased EW about the film. “I hesitate to give away too much because I want people in Sundance to go in a little cold.” It sounds like people in Sundance were just left out in the cold, Andy!

Sundance Institute

David needn’t have gotten upset; he ended up spending Sunday watching the one-two punch of Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You With Me and Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, two very different, absolutely wonderful stories of immigrants and the American dream which he labels “must-sees.” Over at the Eccles, our critic Leah Greenblatt took in Sean Durkin’s domestic drama The Nest, starring the great Carrie Coon and Jude Law, followed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s Force Majeure remake Downhill, which she tweeted “pretty much nails it in 90 minutes.”

On Sunday night, it snowed while I wrote this whole thing. Here’s hoping Monday brings new films fit for a winter wonderland.

For the latest from Park City, follow EW’s coverage of Sundance here.

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