25 must-see under-the-radar summer movies
The lion’s share of the box office may go to blockbusters, but these non-franchise flicks also roar.
Actors Noël Wells (Mr. Roosevelt, Happy Anniversary) and Josh Radnor (Liberal Arts, Afternoon Delight) have cornered the market on indie anti–romantic comedies. This time around, they star as Zoe and Paul, owners of two neighboring (and failing) businesses who begin an a air tacitly permitted by Paul’s wife. “I think it’s about people in transition from one phase of their life to another,” says Wells. “They’re people who are realizing their lives in their current state aren’t fulfilling.” —DANA SCHWARTZ
Javier Bardem lost count of how many times he’s been offered the role of Pablo Escobar, but in Loving Pablo, “we have the chance to get intimate with the monster,” he says. The film centers on the real-life relationship between the Colombian drug kingpin and journalist Virginia Vallejo (Penélope Cruz). Bardem hopes the film goes deeper than previous portrayals that glorified Escobar. “We wanted to make you go, ‘I don’t see the icon, I see the man.’ ”—DEREK LAWRENCE
The Catcher Was a Spy
Moe Berg was a major-league baseball catcher, coach, and, indeed, an American spy. The Princeton and Columbia Law grad was also a radio trivia-show ace who spoke several languages and was reportedly bisexual. He may have also possibly thwarted an atomic threat from the Germans during WWII. “A Moe Berg scholar asked me which Moe I was going to put in the film,” says director Ben Lewin, who, with writer Robert Rodat, built a narrative out of this “eccentric” historical figure’s life. By leaning into star Paul Rudd’s “natural charm,” he hopes he’s covered many. —KATIE HASTY
Leave No Trace
Thomasin McKenzie’s performance as a young girl living off the grid in an urban Portland park with her father (Ben Foster) has already earned her comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence, whose career was launched in 2010 when Leave No Trace writer-director Debra Granik introduced us to her in Winter’s Bone. After seeing McKenzie’s subtle, tearjerking performance at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, critics were universally obsessed with the 17-year-old New Zealand native. While McKenzie is “honored” by the comparisons to J. Law, she reminds us, “I’ve got my own acting style.” —NICK ROMANO
Fireworks, Should We See It From the Side or the Bottom?
Producer Genki Kawamura had a tall order following up the global success of 2016’s Your Name, but he does so with flying colors (literally) in Fireworks, an expressionistic treat that paints an atmospheric portrait of the teenage spirit against the backdrop of its titular neon spectacular. “Fireworks has fascinating drawings. Each scene is a piece of art,” Kawamura says of the film, which is co-directed by Hayao Miyazaki collaborator Nobuyuki Takeuchi and follows a couple traveling through time to perfect their budding relationship.—JOEY NOLFI
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
Rubbing elbows with (and the nether regions of) cinema royals like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn at his same-sex brothel made Marine–turned–celebrity pimp Scotty Bowers the unlikely keeper of closeted Hollywood’s secrets. But when documentarian Matt Tyrnauer peeled back the 94-year-old’s layers, he found a complicated figure whose glamorous past conflicts with his current hoarder lifestyle — a psychological anomaly begging for screen time too. “He’s a picaresque character… one of the great untold stories,” says Tyrnauer of Bowers. —JN
Never Goin’ Back
Augustine Frizzell’s feature directorial debut, Never Goin’ Back, is about two BFFs (Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone) who just want to get high, not get fired from their greasy-diner jobs, and maybe save enough money for a weekend beach getaway. It’s a darkly funny but ultimately sweet tribute to teenage friendship, inspired by Frizzell’s own wild adolescence. “Like, why didn’t I end up in jail or dead?” she says, laughing. “The more I started exploring it, the more I realized that it had to do with my best friend at the time.”—DEVAN COGGAN
How well do you really know your teenage kid? That’s the question John Cho contends with in the thriller Searching. He plays David, a single father whose 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La), suddenly disappears after a study session. The film updates the thriller genre for the digital age by telling the entire story through computers, smartphones, and other second screens. David scours his daughter’s computer and online profiles to uncover clues about her life. “There’s a version of the movie where I’m going around to [Margot’s] friends with a picture in my wallet of my daughter, but that’s not how things are done today,” says Cho. “The film feels familiar, but it looks unfamiliar.” —PIYA SINHA-ROY
The Wolfpack director Crystal Moselle met the members of the all-female skateboarding crew Skate Kitchen by chance one day on the subway in New York. “I just went up to them and was like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ ” she explains with a laugh. “They were like, ‘Why is this weird lady talking to us?’ ” The girls introduced Moselle to the inclusive community they had carved out in NYC’s skate scene, and together, they began developing this spellbinding coming-of-age tale about the joys and challenges of being a female skater.—DC
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Based on the best-selling YA novel by Jenny Han, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before follows high school junior Lara Jean Covey, who is jostled from her comfort zone when private love letters to five boys — never intended to be read by their addressees — are inadvertently mailed out. “Lara Jean lives more in her head and in a fantasy than she does in real life,” says actress Lana Condor (X-Men: Apocalypse). “She is a romantic, but she is blissfully unaware of romantic encounters in her own life.” —DS
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot
“I’ve never been happier in my life than when I was playing Donnie,” says Jonah Hill of his role as the disco-dancing, caftan-wearing AA sponsor to Joaquin Phoenix’s quadriplegic alcoholic John Callahan, on whose memoir Gus Van Sant’s dramedy is based. “Once you’ve gone through a lot of pain, it feels really good to be on the other side.” Donnie’s liberation wasn’t the only superlative aspect of Hill’s experience on the film; his connection with Phoenix, with whom he’d never previously collaborated, was among the greatest he’s had with a costar. One scene they shared was “probably the single most important moment I’ve had as an actor,” says Hill. —MARY SOLLOSI
“By incorporating social commentary on the state of the prison system today, we felt justified doing this adaptation,” says Charlie Hunnam, who takes on the part made famous by Steve McQueen in the original 1973 version of the film. Director Michael Noer agrees: “It gave us stamina — knowing that, even though this is a period movie, the privatization of prisons and violations against inmates is still relevant as ever.” Hunnam very much clung to that resolve when putting his body through a grueling 40-pound weight loss and confining himself to a cell for eight days of silence “to get a glimmer of what it was like” for Charrière, who spent more than a decade in silent, solitary confinement. “I kind of wanted to feel unwell,” the actor says. “I wanted to feel like I was suffering in some way, just to feel worthy of telling these guys’ stories because they had to endure so much. There were moments I wanted to scream. Forcing yourself to be quiet for long periods and eating nothing at all… I felt a little crazy.” Luckily, like “Papi,” Hunnam had a “brother” in costar Rami Malek (who plays fellow convict Louis Dega) to keep him sane. “It really is just a love story between these two guys,” says Hunnam. “People need to be close to other human beings, and in an environment where you don’t have access to the opposite sex — like prison or in the military — we sustain our sense of nourishment, our sense of touch and emotional connection through our relationships with our brothers.”
After Daveed Diggs wrapped his nightly performances as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway hit musical Hamilton in 2015 and 2016, he’d often find his high school friend Rafael Casal sitting in his dressing room, plugging away at their pet project Blindspotting. Marrying spitfire rap verses with slick dialogue that oscillates between comedic scenes and heart-wrenching moments, their film is a cinematic ode to Oakland, the duo’s hometown. It traces the trauma of Collin (Diggs) after he witnesses an unarmed black man fatally shot by a police officer. Collin is forced to reevaluate his friendship with childhood buddy Miles (Casal) — who is white — and the impact of gentrification in Oakland.
Shock and Awe
In the aftermath of 9/11, America was poised for war in Iraq based on the false notion that there were weapons of mass destruction there. But the only people who seemed to know this was untrue at the time were journalists at Knight-Ridder, the now-defunct media company. Shock and Awe tells the story of real-life reporters Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden) as they attempt to uncover the truth. “It’s about guys who are fighting to get the truth out,” director Rob Reiner says, explaining that these journalists were doing what they’re supposed to: “Hold administrations accountable.” —DANA SCHWARTZ
Kevin Macdonald wasn’t a Whitney Houston superfan when he was approached about documenting the late soul-pop diva’s life, but the award-winning Scottish filmmaker (One Day in September) admired the powerful intensity of her voice and “the feeling that she was communicating a lot more than what the words were saying.… Where did the emotion come from that we hear in the voice?” With the cooperation of the Houston estate, Macdonald conducted 70 interviews about the diva; he promises “many revelations that I think will, even to people who feel they know this story, make a lot more sense of who she is.” —SARAH RODMAN
The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter
Josh Brolin and Danny McBride are a huntsman- cameraman duo on a rollicking weekend excursion with the former’s estranged son in this comedy directed by Eastbound & Down co-creator Jody Hill.
Sorry To Bother You
“Writing a movie is a lot like playing God, because you get to create the world that the movie is in,” writer-director Boots Riley says of the absurdist alternate reality in a parallel Oakland that he conjured for his debut feature, Sorry to Bother You. Struggling to make ends meet, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) takes a telemarketing job and learns the benefits of adopting a “white voice” — dubbed by the nasal vocals of comedian David Cross — to quickly win over customers and, more importantly, ascend the corporate ladder. The film is bolstered by an ensemble including Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, and Danny Glover, and garnered strong reviews out of Sundance and SXSW for its original perspective on class, race, and capitalism in modern-day America.
How It Ends
Forest Whitaker and Theo James front a postapocalyptic thriller about a man’s quest to return to his pregnant wife after a mysterious event throws the world into unrest.
Every ticket to Eighth Grade should come with a stress ball. Documentary-like in its lack of pretense, the film from comedian Bo Burnham is gorgeously shot, deliberately paced, and excruciatingly honest — with almost every frame featuring 15-year-old Elsie Fisher. Best known for providing the voice of Agnes in the first two Despicable Me films, in Eighth Grade Fisher is fully live-action (acne and all) as Kayla, the girl voted “Most Quiet” in school, who has challenged herself to be more confident. “The movie on the surface is the story of a typical eighth-grade girl and her last week in middle school,” Fisher says. “But below the surface, it’s really about the shared horror and excitement about this very specific and weird time.”
The road-trip movie gets another wild turn in Boundaries, starring Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer as an estranged father and daughter who are forced to reunite for a cross-country drive. Jack (Plummer) is a weed dealer tossed out of his nursing home, and Laura (Farmiga) is an executive assistant with a son who can’t stop drawing nudes of unwitting adults. “I’m probably overdue for a road trip with my parents, and it’s easier to do this movie and work out my issues that way,” jokes Farmiga. She and her legendary costar got along right away. “By the end of the first day I’m yelling, ‘Plum-zilla, come share this cup of Tito’s with me!’ ” —SEIJA RANKIN
In this near-future-set sci-fi thriller, Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus) plays Grey Trace, a paraplegic given the ability to walk—and fight—thanks to an experimental computer-chip implant. No. 1 on Trace’s to-do list? Find the thugs who killed his wife and left him for dead. The film required Marshall-Green not only to trade blows on screen, but to do so in a suitably robotic manner. “He was a god-send,” says writer-director Leigh Whannell. “He worked with a dance-and-movement instructor and the stunt team. People ask, ‘What sort of tricks did you use to make him seem so robotic?’ And I say, ‘That’s just Logan.’ ” —CLARK COLLIS
In 2004, four college students plotted to steal priceless, one-of-a-kind books from the rare-collection library at Kentucky’s Transylvania University. American Animals is the pitch-black comedy centered on that real-life event, dubbed the “Transy Book Heist.” American Horror Story star Evan Peters portrays Warren Lipka (who also appears as himself in interviews punctuating the film). “He’s the spice in the broth,” Peters says of Lipka. “He’s the wild one, the one that gets the whole thing together. He’s a hilarious guy in real life, witty and charming and cunning—and he likes to break the laws a little bit.” —DANA SCHWARTZ
Hearts Beat Loud
Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons play a father and daughter who start a band in this endearing family dramedy, so naturally we asked the voracious music fans to play DJ for us. “I used to really thrive on making mixed tapes, back when all you had was a blank cassette and a record button,” says Parks and Recreation star Offerman, who tended toward more melancholy, singer-songwriter fare from artists like Tom Waits and included two tunes from wife Megan Mullally’s band Nancy and Beth. “I guess I’m a little bit more on the contemplative side.” Clemons—who previously starred in Dope—says she loves Spotify’s curation process for discovery; she went full-blown, top-down summer mode for her list. “I wanted to keep it to reggae and funky and throwbacks,” she says of jams from the likes of Bob Marley and OutKast. —SARAH RODMAN
Izzy Gets the F*uck Across Town
In order to ruin her ex-boyfriend’s engagement party, a hungover Izzy (Mackenzie Davis) has to get the f— across town.
Woman Walks Ahead
Nineteenth-century artist and Native American rights activist Caroline Weldon (Jessica Chastain) paints the portrait of Sitting Bull.