PARK CITY, Utah — Sundance 2018 is a curious beast. Every year, 40,000 filmmakers, publicists, press, and plebes crowd into Park City for the little film festival that Robert Redford built. And, generally speaking, every edition has a breakout movie or two, a film that people can’t stop talking about and that sets the indie tone for the rest of the year.
Not this year. There’s no galvanizing force, a la “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in 2012 or “Whiplash” in 2014 or “Get Out” and “Call Me By Your Name” last year. There are just a lot of very good movies and a healthy lack of stinkers.
Above all, there are an overwhelming number of very fine performances by young actresses, a few of them famous but the majority unknown, playing women in their teens and 20s with realism and a knowing specificity. This is the Year of the Girl at Sundance, and the twin themes are stress and strength. The films themselves should all come out later in the year, some with a splash and some flying lower to the ground. So have your radar tuned.
Isabelle Nelisse, 13, and Elsie Fisher, 15, were standouts early in the festival, the former as the younger version of Laura Dern’s character, lured into a relationship with her running coach (Josh Ritter) in “The Tale,” the latter merely enduring the social-media horrors of modern-day middle school in Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” They were joined soon after by Thomasin Mackenzie of “Leave No Trace,” the new film by “Winter’s Bone” writer-director Debra Granik.
Mackenzie plays a 13-year-old girl living off the grid and deep in the woods with her father (Ben Foster of “Hell and High Water”), an Iraq War veteran struggling with PTSD. Rangy and watchful, Mackenzie’s character, Tom, starts the film in a state of protective adoration toward her dad as they cope with social services bureaucracy and make an attempt to live back in society. Gradually we watch her grow away and up, a process the young actress seems to uncover as she goes along.
In “Private Life,” the first film in 10 years from Tamara Jenkins (”The Savages”), Kayli Carter plays a woman in an existential post-college funk who decides to give a donor egg to her bohemian stepuncle (Paul Giamatti) and aunt (Katherine Hahn) as they struggle to have a child. (Mom Molly Shannon is not amused, needless to say.) The film’s a tart, openhearted human comedy that sprawls far more than it should; that over-length nevertheless allows Carter to build a detailed and nuanced portrait of a lovable mess.
Then there’s “Assassination Nation” — oh, my. A midnight-movie/high school comedy/social-media satire/feminist revenge thriller, it wonders what might happen if an anonymous hacker released the texts, photos, and browsing histories of everyone in an average American town. (Societal breakdown and madness in the streets, that’s what.) Sam Levinson’s film aches to be an immediate cult classic and comes close to pulling it off, mostly because of its leading quartet of Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Abra, and Hari Nef, a sardonically poised trans actress (from Newton) who has the charisma in chrysalis of a major star.
Better-known ingénues made their mark for better or worse at Sundance this year, including Chloe Grace Moretz (”Kick-Ass”), who turns in one of her best performances to date as a gay teen sent to a Christian conversion camp in “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” and Daisy Ridley of “Star Wars” fame, who just manages to escape intact from the near-camp rubble of “Ophelia” — a botched attempt to tell “Hamlet” from a woman’s perspective.
But it was the ones you’d never heard of who captured festivalgoers’ hearts. “Skate Kitchen,” from director Crystal Moselle (”The Wolfpack”), is a drama lightly laid atop what feels like a documentary about adolescent girl skateboarders in New York City, with Rachelle Vinberg almost translucently present as a newcomer to the scene and a gaggle of real-life boarders-turned-actresses. The movie is at its weakest when it tries to tell a story — there are boy troubles involving a mellow fellow skateboarder played by Jaden Smith, Will’s son — and at its most poignant simply observing these girls soar through the skate parks and streets of the city in the company of each other.
Perhaps the most heroic performance by an unknown actress at Sundance came in one of the festival’s most challenging movies: “Madeline’s Madeline,” a nearly experimental drama about a 16-year-old girl struggling with mental illness. Writer-director Josephine Decker uses camerawork and sound editing to put us harrowingly inside the heroine’s head, and she surrounds her with two older women who are almost as unbalanced as Madeline: A mother (Miranda July) crippled by anxiety and a drama teacher (Molly Parker) who’s exploiting the girl’s illness for conceptual theatrical glory.
“Madeline’s Madeline” is a rough ride that ultimately leads to the riskiest, most exhilarating 30 minutes of filmmaking I saw at Sundance 2018, and the fearless performance of newcomer Helena Howard is integral to the movie’s power. It may be too unconventional a film to get picked up for distribution, but that would be a shame, because it deserves to be seen and Howard deserves a major career.
By contrast, the gleefully violent “Assassination Nation” sold for more than $10 million to Neon and AGBO, two relatively new distributors on the scene; with smart marketing the movie may even recoup that price tag. For all the talk about indies and art, Sundance is still about the business. One only hopes that the quieter and richer films screening here — and the wonderful young actresses in them — reach the wider audience they deserve.
Additional note: One of the best documentaries I saw at Sundance (not to mention a major crowd-pleaser) was “Three Identical Strangers,” about triplets who were separated at birth and only found each other in 1980 at the age of 19. But that’s only the start of Tim Wardle’s film, which gets weirder and darker and more mind-boggling as it goes — a multiple-stage jaw-dropper with fascinating things to say about the competition between nature and nurture. “Three Identical Strangers” is a CNN Films production and will air on the network eventually; on Wednesday it was picked up for theatrical distribution by Neon. Remember the title, because you won’t forget the movie.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.