At its heart, Sundance is about discovery. Some of our brightest, biggest filmmaking stars — we’re talking Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, Ava DuVernay, Paul Thomas Anderson, Lulu Wang, Ryan Coogler, Aubrey Plaza, Catherine Hardwicke, Todd Haynes, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert Eggers, the Duplass brothers, Michael B. Jordan, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Olsen, Brie Larson, Lakeith Stanfield, Miles Teller, Anya Taylor-Joy, and many, many more — first rose to acclaim by bringing their work to Sundance.
Some of the biggest films at this year’s festivals came to us through creators and stars we already know and love — it’s no surprise that Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin are so wonderful in Eisenberg’s “A Real Pain” or that “Worst Person in the World” star Renate Reinsve finds new dimension in both pitch-black comedy “A Different Man” and the off-kilter zombie drama “Handling the Undead” or that Kristen Stewart is riveting in Rose Glass’ “Love Lies Bleeding” — but the enduring stories will surely center on the people we just met at Sundance 2024.
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And while the festival may get more glitzy by the year, those breakouts, those shining new stars, are always on offer. Here are 12 of them — including stars, filmmakers, and more — that we’re betting are destined for big careers, at Sundance and beyond.
David Ehrlich, Ryan Lattanzio, and Marcus Jones also contributed to this article.
Lilly Collias — actress, “Good One”
One of the best performances at this year’s festival only happened because “Good One” writer-director India Donaldson grew so desperate to find the right person to play the lead role in her first feature that she eventually just told her younger sister to ask her actor friends if anyone wanted to do it. When Lily Collias jumped at the chance to audition, it resulted in the kind of kismet that could only happen in the movies — and the kind of put-the-world-on-notice work that still only seems possible in the movies that premiere at Sundance.
Collias’ watchful and brilliantly implosive turn as Sam is the heart and soul of Donaldson’s film, a delicate coming-of-age story about a girl who goes on a hiking trip with her dad and his equally divorced best friend. Every detail in this pointillistic debut is filtered through Collias’ eyes, and the entire film hinges on her expert ability to make the most fleeting and specific emotional abstractions seem real enough to affect her character’s entire sense of self. Sam doesn’t necessarily do anything in “Good One,” but by the time it’s over there won’t be a doubt in your mind that she and Collias alike are both capable of everything. —DE
Theda Hammel — writer, director, editor, composer, and actress, “Stress Positions”
Is there anything Theda Hammel can’t do? For the multihyphenate’s feature filmmaking debut, Hammel has her hands in everything (now this is a real indie filmmaker), not just writing and directing the film, but also co-editing and composing the joint. Oh, and she co-stars in the feature, ably matching wits with star John Early, and adding the kind of spiky presence that makes anyone sit up and pay attention. The only problem with Hammel? Picking the part of her work we like the best. All of those credits make it clear that Hammel is someone with a true vision, but the real secret sauce is how she brings us inside that vision.
“Stress Positions” is set in a specific time and place (early COVID-era New York City) with some very specific people (Early and Hammel play long-time friends navigating their way through queer spaces with different results) and an unexpected edge (in the form of newbie Qaher Harhash, as Early’s character’s nephew), but Hammel’s humor allows for anyone to see themselves in the story (and be able to laugh about it). Making a crowdpleaser that also smacks of your own sense of fun and worldview? That’s no small feat, and we can’t wait to see where Hammel takes all that talent next. —KE
Bilal Hasna — actor, “Layla”
Drag performer-turned-filmmaker Amrou Al-Kadhi’s “Layla” is an exuberant appreciation of queer life even as it skims the surface of weightier issues around identity. But even the most callous of hearts — though anyone not already cosigned to the movie’s sensibilities is unlikely to see this film — will find it hard to skirt the charms of this sensitive, well-acted, and confidently shot feature about a non-binary Arab drag queen (Bilal Hasna) who gets lost in love but finds themselves at the other side of its failure.
British actor Hasna’s performance is something special. He has only a small number of mostly TV credits to his name (including Netflix’s upcoming “3 Body Problem” and Hulu’s recent “Extraordinary”) but announces himself here as a serious leading actor capable of telegraphing all the ever-evolving, moment-to-moment fluxes in being a queer person who has to be so many people at once. In and out of drag, he’s spectacular, often pasted with an eager, hungry grin as the chaos-reigning feelings of love start to overtake Layla like MDMA beginning to take its course. Hasna next stars in the Amazon Prime Video comedy thriller series “Dead Hot,” opposite another breakout of last year’s Sundance, “Rye Lane” star Vivian Oparah. —RL
Brigette Lundy-Paine — actor, “I Saw the TV Glow”
Brigette Lundy-Paine didn’t come into this year’s Sundance as a complete unknown (the actor and Waif Magazine co-founder appeared in all four seasons of Netflix’s “Atypical,” in addition to smaller roles in films like “Bombshell” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music”), but that didn’t stop their blisteringly intense turn as the gay and glowering Maddy in “I Saw the TV Glow” from feeling like the festival’s most undeniable revelation.
Their eyes afire with the burning need to share their favorite television show with someone else who might be on the same wavelength and capable of helping Maddy uncover its secrets, Lundy-Payne embodies their character with such a palpably urgent lust for self-becoming that even the most fanciful elements of Jane Schoenbrun’s film seem as real as your own flesh and blood.
Lundy-Payne guides Maddy from moody ninth-grader to interdimensional voyager in a way that feels like destiny, their performance eventually building towards the most harrowing Sundance monologue since “Resurrection” — one that will resonate with anyone struggling with dysphoria and/or other feelings of self-denial for a long time to come. Lundy-Paine’s performance should pave the way to whatever they want to do next, but even if they never act again I suspect they’ve already cleared the bar to be remembered as an icon. —DE
Katherine Mallen Kupferer — actress, “Ghostlight”
Eagle-eyed viewers (or people on my exact film-watching wavelength) will likely notice a familiarity to the youngest star of Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan’s gem “Ghostlight.” Cast alongside her real-life parents, Keith Kupferer and Tara Mallen, in the film — they play a Chicago-area family still grieving a horrible tragedy — Mallen Kupferer makes off with a scene-stealing turn in a feature that doesn’t include a single bad performance.
While most of the film focuses on Mallen Kupferer’s dad’s character, Dan, the youngest member of the fam immediately stands out for her flinty turn as a pissed-off (and, as we soon learn, deeply traumatized) teenager, the kind of kid who can jump from reciting Shakespeare from memory to potty-mouthing just about everyone around her. It feels real and lived-in, but Mallen Kupferer’s big twist is how she adds so much emotionality and interiority to the “sassy teen girl” role. No wonder she’s so good, coming from a pair of also skilled actor parents, and the youngest Mallen Kupferer should have a very bright future ahead of her. —KE
John Earl Jelks — actor, “Exhibiting Forgiveness”
One of those New York theater legends who will take a guest spot on a cop show every now and then, John Earl Jelks actually had his first film breakout 25 years ago in “Compensation,” which screened at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. His return to Park City is nothing short of triumphant, playing a former addict trying to reconnect with his famous artist son in Titus Kaphar’s autofictional feature directorial debut. Jelks portrays moments of menace, and moments where the audience may genuinely want André Holland’s Terell to give his character a second chance, but ultimately, his performance as La’Ron emphasizes the point that absolution is not owed to a perpetrator, even if they so desperately seek it. —MJ
Jazmin Jones and Olivia McKayla Ross — filmmakers, “Seeking Mavis Beacon”
Director Jazmin Jones and producer Olivia Mckayla Ross’ “Seeking Mavis Beacon,” produced and distributed by Neon, examines how a Haitian-born woman went from behind a sales counter in Los Angeles to becoming an AI-made likeness and Mandela Effect sensation. With brash confessional style, the first-time filmmakers and self-styled “e-girl detectives” consider our own online-ness and notions of consent in the digital age.
In the film, Jones and Ross try to chase down a woman named Renee L’Esperance, who served as the cover model for a 1987-launched computer typing program “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.” The young filmmakers, however, don’t shy from the physical and psychic tolls the pandemic-era production takes on them. “Seeking Mavis Beacon” grows increasingly personal and self-reflexive as Jones and Ross confront the possibility that L’Esperance doesn’t want to be contacted at all. Jones and Ross, both Bay Area-born internet nerds, prove themselves preternaturally gifted filmmakers. Their documentary, with support from Neon, who previously catapulted acquired documentaries like “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” and “Flee” to Oscar nominations, should find a healthy, inquisitive audience of all generations this year. —RL
Adam Pearson — actor, “A Different Man”
Aaron Schimberg’s “A Different Man” (A24) is a morbid, fatalistic, and altogether wincingly funny existential theater comedy about a disabled actor (Sebastian Stan) whose neurofibromatosis keeps him boxed into niche roles like a human resources PSA about how to treat employees with deformities. For this film, Stan’s likeness is based on actor Adam Pearson, known for “Under the Skin” and Schimberg’s “Chained for Life.” But after Edward undergoes an experimental facial reconstruction surgery, revealing the more “conventionally attractive” and able-bodied Stan underneath, Schimberg’s movie becomes an inquiry into who gets to play what roles. Edward, now going by Guy and cast in a play loosely based on his past life, is suddenly challenged by the arrival of Oswald, played by Pearson as a singing-dancing charisma machine.
You follow? “A Different Man” is a trip. While eagle-eyed indie fans will know the British Pearson from those aforementioned films, the co-casting of buzzy actor Stan and the support of A24 will inevitably elevate Pearson’s profile. His remarkable performance is the core of this strange movie, and Pearson’s highest-ticket film yet is also a beacon of representation for actors maligned elsewhere — or losing roles to able-bodied performers. —RL
Katy O’Brian — actress, “Love Lies Bleeding”
It takes one hell of a performer to keep pace with co-star Kristen Stewart in Rose Glass’ wild, wily “Love Lies Bleeding,” but O’Brian does just that — and more! — in the raucous A24 Midnight movie. At its center, the film is a romance, built on the bond between Stewart’s tough Lou and O’Brian’s Jackie, a bodybuilder who sweeps into town and upends just about everything. O’Brian, herself a bodybuilder and material arts devotee, certainly has the physique for the role, but none of it works without her deep-seated sweetness, the kind that draws out Lou and pushes the pair into unpredictable spaces.
O’Brian isn’t unfamiliar to action fans and franchise fanatics, as she’s already appeared in everything from “The Mandalorian” and “Z Nation” to “Black Lightning” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” but her “Love Lies Bleeding” turn marks a new step (and, we’re guessing, a brand new audience) for the star in the making. Next up for O’Brian: “Twisters.” Those tornadoes better watch out, because they’ve got some serious competition for the film’s powerhouse title. —KE
Sean Wang — filmmaker, “Didi”
It is quite the feat to walk into Sundance as a first-time feature filmmaker, and walk out an Oscar nominee. Though the latter title stems from receiving a Best Documentary Short nod for “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó,” a portrait of his grandmothers, director Sean Wang has still made waves at the festival with his U.S. Dramatic Competition entry about 13-year-old Taiwanese American boy coming of age in Fremont, California.
While he admittedly draws inspiration from past Sundance indies like “Eighth Grade,” the way in which he incorporates relics of the late aughts like Myspace Top 8’s and Hellogoodbye’s “Touchdown Turnaround” conjures a very specific kind of dread for anyone who survived middle school at that time. This is set right before the internet was quicker to police actions and language, so though it is sweet to see protagonist Chris (Izaac Wang) begin to skateboard, and go on dates with girls, when things go south, the film is not afraid to be vicious. The heart always comes through in Wang’s work. —MJ
Jay Will — actor, “Rob Peace”
Writer/director Chiwetel Ejiofor’s second feature behind the camera, “Rob Peace,” is a conventional but moving adaptation of Jeff Hobbs’ bestselling biography “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.” This earnestly told film stars “Tulsa King” breakout Jay Will as once-promising Black Yale graduate Robert Peace, driven by circumstances and institutional failures into a life of drug-running that ended with his murder in 2011 at the age of 30.
While Ejiofor’s film is a by-the-numbers biographical portrait, if there’s any takeaway for the industry folks in the audience as the movie awaits distribution, it’s the big-screen, leading-man power of Will. With an aquiline nose and wiser-than-his-years command, the 26-year-old Compton-born actor gives an overwhelmingly heart-open performance that makes you understand why everyone in his midst adored him, and how his life’s richness lent well to a best-selling biography. (Watch for a late-breaking hospital bedside vigil of sorts when Rob finally confronts his long-incarcerated and now-dying father, played by Ejiofor.) Will elevates the familiar material, showing that his TV chops in the likes of “Tulsa King” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” will translate beautifully to a film career. —RL
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