Sundance announces 2018 program as festival sits at cultural crossroads

In film circles these days it’s hard to separate what’s going on in the real world from what’s happening on screen. Socially relevant topics such as diversity and abuse of power are fueling filmmakers and factoring in selections by major film festivals.

So issues of inclusion, diversity and abuse of power run through the Sundance Film Festival’s choices for its 2018 feature films programs, announced on Wednesday. All told, 110 feature films have been selected for the festival that runs from Jan. 18-28 in Park City, Utah.

Among the films chosen for the high-profile Premieres section are Brad Anderson’s “Beirut” starring Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike; Ben Lewin’s “The Catcher Was a Spy” featuring Paul Rudd; Joshua Marston’s “Come Sunday” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor; David Zellner and Nathan Zellner’s “Damsel” with Robert Pattinson; and Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.”

Also among the premieres is Jesse Peretz’s “Juliet, Naked” starring Rose Byrne and Claire McCarthy’s “Ophelia” with Daisy Ridley. “Winter’s Bone” filmmaker Debra Granik returns to the festival with what is currently billed as the “Untitled Debra Granik Project.”

The festival’s director of programming Trevor Groth pointed out in an interview earlier this week that many of the titles in the U.S. Dramatic Competition feature complicated, rich female lead performances, with Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Kindergarten Teacher,” Chloë Sevigny in “Lizzie,” Chloë Grace Moretz in “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” Andrea Riseborough in “Nancy,” Laura Dern in “The Tale” and Carey Mulligan in “Wildlife.”

A number of other competition titles include male African American performers in the lead such as Jason Mitchell in “Tyrel,” Lakeith Stanfield in “Sorry to Bother You,” Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Jeffrey Wright in “Monster,” John David Washington in “Monsters and Men,” and Daveed Diggs in “Blindspotting.” In “Burden,” Garrett Hedlund plays a KKK member who has a change in his beliefs after being taken in by an African American pastor played by Forest Whitaker.

The documentary category features profiles of a number of notable Americans, including Jane Fonda (“Jane Fonda in Five Acts”), Gloria Allred (“Seeing Allred”), Joan Jett (“Bad Reputation”), Fred Rogers (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”), Hal Ashby (“Hal”), Robin Williams (“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“RBG.”)

The Documentary Premieres section also includes Amy Adrion’s “Half the Picture” on gender equality in Hollywood and the ongoing struggles of female filmmakers within the industry.

“We’ve been talking about how independent film is progressing so quickly,” said festival director John Cooper, noting changes both in technology and content. “There is a certain kind of awareness and acceptance and almost a demand for stories from alternative points of view in America. And that feels like an asset to us.”

As the nation’s flagship independent film festival, Sundance once again finds itself at the center of multiple crossroads all at once. Last year’s grand prize winner, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” was the first to belong to a streaming service, appearing on Netflix less than a month after the festival. The 2017 edition of the festival also saw the world premieres of films dealing with racism and sexism such as “The Big Sick,” “Call Me by Your Name,” “Mudbound” and “Get Out” — all players in this year’s film awards season.

The presidential inauguration coincided with last year’s event as well, bringing an added resolve and air of shared purpose and commitment among attendees. This year the festival will happen amid the evolving revelations of sexual harassment and abuse within the entertainment industry.

Cooper said the festival is still exploring ways to address the issue, including a code of conduct that had long applied to staff and volunteers being expanded to include the whole festival population. “I feel a responsibility to have community around this,” Cooper said.

Reed Morano recently won an Emmy for directing on Hulu’s series “The Handmaid’s Tale” and now the second feature film she has directed will be her first to play at Sundance — “I Think We’re Alone Now” starring Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning, appearing in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.

“Ultimately I think my heart lies with cinema and seeing something on a big screen,” Morano said in an interview this week from Dublin, where she is already in production on another feature.

“That’s the beauty of the movies that I love,” she added. “You’re getting on undiluted vision and it’s cool to get into someone else’s weird crazy mind.”

If the festival’s organizers have found themselves unexpectedly responding to cultural shifts, filmmakers too have seen their work take on new and expanded meaning in the face of the current political environment.

In “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” director and co-screenwriter Desiree Akhavan and her producer and co-screenwriter Cecilia Frugiuele adapted the novel by Emily Danforth, a story of teenage gay conversion therapy.

“It felt so relevant to both of us in a lot of ways. It covered a lot of subject matter we wanted to discuss,” Akhavan said. “The election happened while we were shooting. I remember I kept having the same conversation, ‘Is this film relevant, will anybody care?’ And it became disturbingly relevant as we made it.”

The 10 films in the Next section will continue as a home to some of the festival’s most offbeat and exciting discoveries. This year’s selections include “The Wolfpack” director Crystal Moselle’s “Skate Kitchen,” Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” starring Molly Parker and Miranda July, Jim Hosking’s “An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn” starring Aubrey Plaza, Aneesh Chaganty’s “Search” with John Cho and Bridey Elliott’s “Clara’s Ghost” starring the writer-director alongside her parents, Chris and Paula Elliott, and sister Abby Elliott.

Writer-director Qasim Basir set out to make a light romance and what he ended up with is “A Boy, a Girl, a Dream,” a romantic drama set on the night of the 2016 presidential election playing in the Next section. The film stars Omari Hardwick and Meagan Good with a small role for “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris.

“We were creating a fun love story, then the election happened,” Basir said in an interview from Los Angeles this week. “And then it hit me so deeply. I just really have such a strong feeling about what’s happening in this country right now. So I just called my producer and said, ‘What if it’s set on election night?’ So then my attempt at making a light love story became something serious and intense again.”

That mix of cultural relevance and emotional resonance looks to be the signature feature of the upcoming festival.

“In truth, in the independent film world, you’re still looking for excellence in the biggest terms,” said festival director Cooper. “Boldness, importance to the cultural landscape. And then it just happens naturally.”

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Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

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