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The biggest breakout stars of Sundance 2020

Yaani King Mondschein, Elle Lorraine and Lena Waithe in “Bad Hair.”
Yaani King Mondschein, Elle Lorraine and Lena Waithe in “Bad Hair.”
(Sundance Institute)
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The Sundance Film Festival is known for introducing audiences to bold visions and new ideas in indie filmmaking. But it’s also a place to discover breakout talent, both behind and in front of the camera.

The festival’s 2020 edition, which runs through Sunday, is no exception. The Times staff scoured this year’s films for the following list of the most exciting faces to watch. But before we see what they do next, you’ll want to check out their Sundance films as they hit theaters and/or streaming. (Some titles are still seeking distribution, but we’re expecting to see most of these get a release this year.)

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Clare Dunne, ‘Herself’
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Writer/actor Clare Dunne from the film, “Herself.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

One way to achieve a breakout performance is to cowrite a splendid part for yourself, and that’s what Irish actress Clare Dunne has done in “Herself,” which was acquired by Amazon during the festival. Primarily known for her theater work, Dunne is both warm and indomitable as a woman determined to build a new life for herself and her children. The part may sound familiar, the performance is not. — Kenneth Turan

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Radha Blank, ‘The 40-Year-Old Version’
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Writer/director/actor/producer Radha Blank, and actor Oswin Benjamin from “The 40-Year-Old Version.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

New York playwright Radha Blank plays New York playwright Radha, an artist at a professional crossroads who gives her emceeing dreams a shot on the eve of her 40th birthday. Making her feature directing, writing and starring debut, Blank’s incisive black-and-white seriocomedy heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice with rhymes and insights as biting as they are vulnerable. — Jen Yamato

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Elle Lorraine, ‘Bad Hair’
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Elle Lorraine from “Bad Hair” visits the GIF booth at the Los Angeles Times Photo Studio at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Jan. 24, 2020.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Justin Simien’s “Bad Hair” is a movie that frequently borders on the ridiculous, telling a horror-comedy tale of haunted weaves. Star Elle Lorraine is never anything less than wholly convincing, bringing a relatable poignancy to a character who lets her ambitions drive her to unexpected actions, and finds her own body beyond her control. — Mark Olsen

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Taylour Paige, ‘Zola’
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Taylour Paige of “Zola.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

“Zola,” based on a 2015 viral Twitter thread involving two strippers on an increasingly sketchy road trip, is marked by a wild, raucous sensibility. Taylour Paige brings a steady, watchful center to the film, which A24 will release this year, both a part of the story and always somehow outside of it, eyeing the exit in every scene and conveying a sense that she knows she should be somewhere else. — Mark Olsen

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Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Jayme Lawson and Zainab Jah, ‘Farewell Amor’
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Jayme Lawson, Zainab Jah and Nana Mensah, director Ekwa Msangi, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine and Marcus Scribner of “Farewell Amor.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

In Ekwa Msangi’s tenderhearted, multiperspective debut feature, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (“The Chi”) plays Walter, a mild-mannered New York cabdriver who is reunited after a 17-year absence with his wife, Esther (Zainab Jah), and their daughter, Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), who have immigrated from their native Angola. The actors wonderfully nail the tensions and awkward rhythms of a family adjusting to a new situation and renewing their commitment to each other, but they really shine individually, showing us their characters’ private moments of struggle and solace. — Justin Chang

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The cast of ‘Charm City Kings’
Los Angeles Times Studio at Sundance
(L-R) Kezii Curtis, producer Clarence Hammond, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, William Catlett, director Angel Manuel Soto, Donielle T. Hansley Jr., producer Caleeb Pinkett, screenwriter Sherman Payne, and Lakeyria “Wheelie Queen” Doughty of “Charm City Kings.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Jahi Di’Allo Winston delivers a layered star turn as Mouse, a Baltimore youngster who dreams of joining an elite crew of dirt bike riders in “Charm City Kings.” Inspired by the documentary “12 O’Clock Boys,” the film’s cast is full of breakouts, from Donielle Hansley and Kezii Curtis as Mouse’s best friends, to real life Baltimore bikers Chino and Wheelie Queen and rapper Meek Mill, who makes his acting debut in the coming-of-age drama opening later this year from Sony Pictures Classics. — Jen Yamato

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Steven Garza and Rene Otero, ‘Boys State’
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Subjects Steven Garza, Rene Otero and Ben Feinstein from the documentary “Boys State.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

The two most memorable 17-year-old amateur politicos in Jesse Moss’ hugely entertaining documentary about the famous mock-government program can’t help but stand out: They’re young men of color advocating for progressive policies in a sea of predominantly conservative white Texans. Like the film itself, they they reveal how politics can divide and unite: Otero’s fiery speeches mire him in an overblown impeachment controversy, even as Garza’s moving, plainspoken honesty cuts across ideological lines. Apple and A24 teamed up to acquire this one for a documentary record-tying $10-million deal. — Justin Chang

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Alan Kim, ‘Minari’
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Alan Kim from “Minari.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Alan Kim took cowboy chic to a whole new level at the premiere of “Minari,” another A24 title, where he stole hearts in his first film role. The second-grader commands the screen in Lee Isaac Chung’s Korean American opus as 7-year-old David, whose precociousness and preternatural charisma mark the discovery of a new cinema star. Al Pacino? Meryl Streep? Take notes. — Jen Yamato


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