This year's Sundance Film Festival, which runs from January 28 to February 3, may be virtual, but it has a stellar lineup of films, many of which feature LGBTQ+ characters. Below, see a selection of the queer offerings and find the entire listing at Sundance.org.
Images and descriptions courtesy of the Sundance Institute.
Mona Fastvold’s rugged period romance The World to Come is adapted from Jim Shepard's 2017 short story of the same name and premiered in competition at the Venice International Film Festival.
In 18th-century upstate New York, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is increasingly defeated by grief and the drudgery of rural life. Her deference and propriety maintain a mundane equilibrium with her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), but her narrated diaries offer a picture into a richer internal life. When spring brings newcomers Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) to the otherwise empty landscape, the journal entries frantically anticipate — and then enthusiastically document — an affair with Tallie. As menial machinations are interrupted and patriarchal sovereignty is questioned, both marriages buckle. The wives’ connection is threatened, but Abigail and Tallie’s love for each other is steadfast, both on-screen and in handwritten pages.
Fastvold exquisitely captures the oppression of settler life while adopting a devoutly literary approach to portray her protagonist’s internal life, striking a transportive balance between warmth and chill.
Late on a cold night somewhere in the U.S., teenage Casey sits alone in her attic bedroom, scrolling the internet under the glow-in-the-dark stars and black-light posters that blanket the ceiling. She has finally decided to take the World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing horror game, and embrace the uncertainty it promises. After the initiation, she documents the changes that may or may not be happening to her, adding her experiences to the shuffle of online clips available for the world to see. As she begins to lose herself between dream and reality, a mysterious figure reaches out, claiming to see something special in her uploads.
When 26-year-old Anna becomes a gestational surrogate to a single, middle-aged app designer named Matt, she expects only a transactional bit of good karma and the payday that will allow her to finish her college degree. But as Matt’s unbridled enthusiasm for impending parenthood leads him to persistently insert himself into her life and invite her into his, the initially annoyed Anna finds herself reluctantly charmed. The pair of self-described loners gradually open up to each other, give in to the intimacy of their admittedly finite shared experience, and forge an unlikely friendship.
Writer-director Nikole Beckwith (Stockholm, Pennsylvania, 2015 Sundance Film Festival) returns with a film that eschews rom-com conventions and subverts expectations of traditional gender dynamics — instead paying tribute to the deeply felt and regenerative power of platonic love. Featuring the boldly mismatched casting of comedy icon Ed Helms and sharp-tongued newcomer Patti Harrison, Together Together depicts the surrogacy process with melancholy and warmth, embedding a distinctively awkward humor within its palpable tenderness for these not-at-all hopeless loners.
Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a refined, upper-class 1920s woman, finds breezy refuge from a hot summer day in the grand tearoom of New York City’s Drayton Hotel. Across the room, she spots a blond woman staring her down. Irene wants to steal away, but before she can, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) rushes over to stop her. It turns out the two were in high school together, and while both are African-American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Now their renewed acquaintance threatens them both.
Passing is an elegant psychological thriller about obsession, repression, and the lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully constructed realities. In her debut feature, Rebecca Hall uses creamy, mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography and a deft directorial restraint to adapt Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel into an affecting experiential insight into the pursuit of happiness and authenticity by those navigating the grinding tensions of American racism.
Björn Andrésen was 15 when he starred as Tadzio opposite Dirk Bogarde in Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Death in Venice. A year later, during the film’s Cannes premiere, Visconti proclaimed Andrésen to be “the world’s most beautiful boy.” A comment that might have seemed flattering at the time became a burden that tainted Andrésen’s life.
Through a fascinating mix of archival footage and contemporary interactions with Andrésen, co-directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri explore the nature of overnight stardom and the objectification that sometimes comes with it. Andrésen, now in his 60s, bravely opens up about the irresponsible treatment he was subjected to and how the “curse of beauty” distorted his formative years. Being immortalized as an iconic boy meant that Andrésen spent most of his adult life trying to be invisible, refusing to have his identity shaped by a shallow fantasy about who he was. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is a thoughtful and quietly devastating meditation on obsession, trauma, and the cost of fame.
Newlywed musicians Bertie and Fred are adjusting to their new life in the beautiful countryside of France. It’s an easy transition for Fred, the son of French and Spanish parents, but New Orleans native Bertie grapples with a nagging depression that is affecting her singing. Lane — the quirky ex who disappeared from their three-way relationship years ago — suddenly shows up for a surprise visit, bringing new energy and baggage of her own.
First-time feature filmmaker Marion Hill takes us on a tipsy, moody dive into polyamory that holds all of the gravity and complexity of sexual fluidity and triangulation, while maintaining the buoyant atmosphere of a hot summer adventure through the fields of Europe. Levitated by an intoxicating acoustic guitar soundtrack by Mahmoud Chouki, Ma Belle, My Beauty is a breezy and meaningful journey through wine-drenched candlelit dinners, firelit vineyard parties, farmers’ markets, and sunny hikes alongside the creek, as Fred, Bertie, and Lane grapple with how to get what they want inside the soup of their desires, passions, and life ambitions.
What. Is. That. Noise. When Molly hears knocking coming from the ceiling in her new apartment, she naturally searches for the source. The upstairs neighbors don’t know what she’s talking about and dismiss her with cool indifference. Is this all in her mind? After all, she’s still processing a traumatic event that left her mentally unwell, and the unprecedented heat wave isn’t helping her think clearly. As the knocking intensifies and gives way to a woman’s cries, Molly becomes consumed with finding out the truth. Could it be Morse code? Is someone trapped? And more importantly, why doesn’t anyone care?
Knocking is a sharp indictment of the gaslight culture and social stigma that work against those experiencing mental illness. Director Frida Kempff’s stunning visuals induce a dissonant sensation of physical disembodiment and feverish claustrophobia that mimics Molly’s deteriorating mental state. Cecilia Milocco exudes Molly’s vulnerability and strength in equal measures, spiraling in one moment before standing her ground the next. Knocking leaves you, just like Molly, questioning yourself until the very end.
An Afghan refugee agrees to tell a remarkable personal narrative of persecution and escape on the condition that his identity not be revealed. As a means of fulfilling that wish, his filmmaker friend uses striking animation to not only protect this young man but also enhance his tale, bending time and memory to recount a visceral, poetic, and death-defying journey dictated by deception, loneliness, and a relentless will to survive.
The result is Flee, a film unbound by documentary constraints and swept up in an astonishing array of archive footage, ’80s pop music, and hand-drawn craft that brings audiences directly into the experience of a teen fleeing multiple countries — and the psychological impact on how he loves, trusts, and understands his burgeoning identity. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film is a triumph of storytelling and filmmaking ingenuity, but its greatest asset is the empathy and trust Rasmussen forms with the film’s protagonist, whose clarity and vulnerability grant us access to a unique refugee tale.
Ten miles from the Mexican border, students at Horizon High School in El Paso, Texas, are enrolling in law enforcement classes and joining an unusual after-school activity: the criminal justice club. Through mock-ups of drug raids and active-shooter takedowns, they inch closer to their desired careers in border patrol, policing, and customs enforcement. We follow Mexican-American students Kassy and Cesar and recent graduate Cristina as they navigate the complications inherent in their chosen path and discover their choices may clash with the values and people they hold closest.
Through intimate access and a clear-sighted lens, director Maisie Crow takes us inside one of the largest policing education programs in the region, offering a rare portrait of Latinx adolescents grappling with their place within their communities. Unafraid of confronting the difficult questions that lurk at the intersection of identity, immigration, and personal politics, At the Ready asks: What is the price of pursuing dreams that have very real ramifications?
Many know the name Alvin Ailey, but how many know the man? Ailey’s commitment to searching for truth in movement resulted in pioneering and enduring choreography that centers on African-American experiences. Director Jamila Wignot’s resonant biography grants artful access to the elusive visionary who founded one of the world’s most renowned dance companies, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Wignot’s approach shares Ailey's love of poetry. Where Ailey conveyed poetry through movement, Wignot crafts a visual poetry to evoke Ailey’s memories. Archival footage, layered with audio recordings, expounds on Ailey’s upbringing and establishes the language of his inspiration. Interviews with celebrated company dancers and distinguished choreographers give insight into Ailey’s process and legacy, while the current company of dancers work to bring a tribute to life. Wignot’s portrait is complex, capturing the talent and confidence of a man in the spotlight while also carving out space for Ailey’s vulnerability. Wignot moves between the interior and exterior, the inhale and exhale, to capture Ailey’s reverberating impact.
It’s not often we’re introduced to a true luminary, and Pauli Murray was just that — as well as a lawyer, Black activist, feminist, poet, and priest. Murray questioned systems of oppression and conformity throughout the mid-20th century, with a radical vision consistently ahead of the times. Murray’s trailblazing legal foresight influenced landmark civil rights decisions and gender equality legislation that transformed our world.
Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen (RBG, 2018 Sundance Film Festival) return to Sundance with an illuminating portrait of an inspiring leader. Murray’s writings, photographs, and audio recordings, along with newly discovered footage and interviews, interlace to tell the story of a pioneer with a tenacious spirit. West and Cohen balance numerous professional accomplishments with a window into Murray’s full and complex private life. Murray’s personal letters reveal years of grappling with and resisting gender categories, affectionate exchanges with loved ones, and confident and resolute demands for justice. Pauli Murray has a legacy far-reaching and deep. This is a name you won't soon forget.
This beautiful mix of live action and animation tells the story of Juana, a spunky 17-year-old in a wheelchair who aims to explore her sexuality but is ashamed of her body. Trying to find her place in a new school, she endures failure, friendship, fear, and politics until she builds her sense of pride.
In conjuction with the LGBTQ+ films of Sundance, Outfest and GLAAD have partnered for Queer House, a series of panels, discussions, and performances with out and ally members of the entertainment industry like Wilson Cruz, Rita Moreno, Leo Cheng, Scott Turner Schofield, Yance Ford, D’Lo, and more.
“Providing our community, our filmmakers, and their stories from this year’s Sundance programming slate as well as voices from across our industry will cover subjects and topics that we believe are top of mind and that should be given a platform to amplify their wisdom,” said Damien Navarro, executive director of Outfest.
The best part? These events are all free and open to the public. Learn more and visit Queer House virtually at Sundance.org.