The Birth of a Nation Sundance
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Sundance has always served as a springboard to launch the careers of under-the-radar actors — just ask Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”), Carey Mulligan (“An Education”), Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Ryan Gosling (“The Believer”) — and the 2016 edition of the festival was no exception. Variety’s critics Justin Chang, Guy Lodge and Geoff Berkshire and film reporters Ramin Setoodeh and Brent Lang weighed in on their favorite breakthrough performances at this year’s Sundance.

(1) Narges Rashidi, “Under the Shadow”
Babak Anvari’s wartime creeptacular has already drawn well-deserved comparisons to another Sundance-premiered horror hit, “The Babadook,” and along similar lines, Rashidi’s intense yet fine-grained work here deserves to be spoken of in the same lofty tones as Essie Davis’. As a fiercely intelligent, progressive-minded Iranian woman infuriated by the direction of her country since the Islamic Revolution, Rashidi plays her character like a musical instrument going slowly out of tune; it’s a performance rich in both motherly love and scream-queen abandon. – Justin Chang

(2) Aja Naomi King, “The Birth of a Nation
Already known as one of Viola Davis’ students from “How to Get Away with Murder,” King transforms herself from contemporary glamour girl to 19th-century slave in Nate Parker’s festival smash. A harrowing scene late in the film opposite Parker as Nat Turner reveals a depth and range King has never been asked to deliver in her small screen work, and a potential new star is born. – Geoff Berkshire

(3) Lily Gladstone, “Certain Women”
Advance publicity obviously centered on Kristen Stewart’s presence in this contemplative multi-character study from director Kelly Reichardt, and she’s certainly in fine form. But she’s not the driving star in her segment of the film: That would be luminous Native American actress Gladstone, recognizable from a minor role in Arnaud Desplechin’s “Jimmy P,” who gently broke audiences’ hearts as a lonely rancher who makes a fleeting personal connection with Stewart’s townie lawyer. A sustained close-up of her subtly expressive face, as her character silently considers the love story that might have been, is the single best minute of acting this critic saw all festival. – Guy Lodge

(4) Nate Parker, “The Birth of a Nation”
Parker was already an established actor from movies like “Beyond the Lights” and “Red Tails” when he landed in Park City. But he left Sundance as a multi-tasking superstar — he carried duties as the lead, screenwriter, producer and director of “The Birth of a Nation,” which retraces the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner. Parker’s film, which sold to Fox Searchlight in a record $17.5 million deal, will no doubt be one of the most talked about dramas of 2016, as it’s already been crowned a formidable awards season contender. Of all the actors who debuted projects at Sundance this year, Parker’s future looks the brightest. – Ramin Setoodeh

(5) Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”
At 19, Hedges performs subtle acting cartwheels as the high-school nephew of Lee (Casey Affleck), a lonely janitor who moves back to his hometown on the Boston shore in this Kenny Lonergan drama. Hedges auditioned five times for the role, mastering a Gloucester accent, and he delivers Lonergan’s lines with a tour-de-force toughness. His chemistry with Affleck is so great, he should be in the running for next year’s Oscars — in the best supporting actor category. – R.S.

(6) Tika Sumpter, “Southside With You”
It’s a tall order to bring a living, breathing icon to life. But that’s just what Sumpter does, checking in with America’s First Lady before she ever landed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Playing Michelle Robinson when she was just an up-and-coming corporate lawyer, Sumpter slowly lets her guard down, allowing an idealistic Barack Obama to charm her into going to an art show, a community gathering and a Spike Lee film. The rest, as they say, is history. – Brent Lang

(7) Morgan Saylor, “White Girl”
The 21-year-old Saylor got her start playing one of the more reviled characters on television (Dana Brody in “Homeland”), and there will be plenty who despise her latest creation, Leah, the recklessly rutting-and-snorting young hellion trying to get her dealer boyfriend out of jail in Elizabeth Wood’s scuzzy provocation “White Girl.” But liking Leah — let alone finding her empowering — could scarcely be more beside the point, and the strength of Saylor’s performance lies in its defiant refusal of the audience’s sympathy as she plunges headlong into a whirlwind of debasement. The character may be awfully stupid, but only an actress of blazing intelligence could keep us watching. – J.C.

(8) Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, “Sing Street”
Carrying your very first movie in a leading role at the age of 15 is already a tall enough order. Doing so while also singing, playing instruments and rocking a range of outlandish New Romantic hairdos takes major star presence. A boy soprano and classically trained pianist with stage experience in his native Ireland, Walsh-Peelo acts as if to the camera born: funny, unaffected and never too cute, he’s just gawky enough and just starry-eyed enough to pull off the recklessly romantic tone of John Carney’s latest musical drama. He also belts out its ’80s-pastiche songbook with enough conviction to make us forget he was born nearly two decades after the pop genre in question. – G.L.

(9) Lucy Boynton, “Sing Street”
The outlying Englishwoman in the proudly Irish ensemble of John Carney’s coming-of-age musical — not that you’d know it from her spot-on Dublin accent — Boynton has a tricky role here, having to play both the precociously poised object of the protagonist’s desire, and the uncertain, insecure child beneath the glittery makeup and fierce Pat Benatar hair. The 21-year-old Londoner is bewitching in either guise; it can’t be long before she attains Imogen Poots levels of ubiquity. – G.L.

(10) Ben Schnetzer, “Goat
Proving that his role in “Pride” was no fluke, Schnetzer gives off a heartthrob movie-star glow — like a hybrid of a young Josh Hartnett and Jared Leto — as a college student pledging for a fraternity with brutal hazing practices. Andrew Neel’s drama often plays like a horror movie, but Schnetzer keeps the story grounded, turning “Goat” into a cautionary tale of what happens when universities don’t do enough to protect their students. – R.S.

(11) Jacob Latimore, “Sleight”
As a promising student-turned-drug dealer in this surprising sci-fi-tinged drama, Latimore shows he’s ready for the big leagues. The meaty star turn in the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams-mentee J.D. Dillard allows Latimore to dabble in drama, comedy, romance and action and he aces every challenge. At a time when demand for black actors is only increasing, Hollywood better take notice. – G.B.

(12) Markees Christmas, “Morris From America”
As a hip-hop loving teenage transplant from the U.S. struggling to adjust to life in Germany, Christmas provides a fresh and funny spark to this familiar coming-of-age story. An acting neophyte, Chrismas nevertheless beautifully conveyed Morris’ heartbreak and frustration as he fails to get an older girl to return his feelings. When he finally gets a chance to test his rhymes in front of an audience, it may be the most galvanic rap performance since the finale of “8 Mile.” Mic drop. – B.L.

(13) Tom Bennett, “Love and Friendship
Of the many pleasures in Whit Stillman’s breezy take on Jane Austen, Bennett’s turn as a wealthy imbecile named Sir James Martin arguably takes the extremely well-decorated cake. Best known for his British TV work, the actor gets his first big-screen appearance here since 2012’s “Shadow Dancer,” and it’s a pip of a role: Whether he’s making inane chitchat, marveling at the “novelty vegetables” on his plate (they’re just peas), or instructing his incredulous listeners about the importance of following “the 12 Commandments,” Bennett takes comic buffoonery to dizzying and strangely endearing new heights. – J.C.

(14) Michael Barbieri, “Little Men
With a hard New York accent to rival De Niro, this eighth-grader commands the screen with a confidence that belies his young age. Along with co-star Theo Taplitz, Barbieri provides the beating heart to this story about two Brooklyn families torn apart by gentrification. He also gets the funniest scene in the movie — a “can you top this” back and forth with his drama coach that had the audience at the film’s world premiere breaking into spontaneous applause. – B.L.

(15) Theo Taplitz, “Little Men”
As an introverted, artistic soul who is brought out of his shell by the brash Barbieri, Taplitz expertly captures the awkwardness of adolescence and the intensity of the bonds that can be formed during those years. When the two boys’ friendship is tested by their parents’ real estate feud, Taplitz breaks down. Tears streaming down his face, his voice rising in anger and in hurt, he powerfully demonstrates that childhood can be both a time of growth and of loss. – B.L.

(16) J.J. Totah, “Other People”
Chris Kelly’s dramedy about a mom (Molly Shannon) battling cancer is a sobfest filtered through laughs, and one of the film’s brightest moments arrives when the film’s gay 30-year-old protagonist (Jesse Plemons), who has moved back home to Sacramento, meets his friend’s younger brother Justin (Totah). Justin is a character unlike any other: a flamboyant teenager who loves Carrara marble and puts on a one-man drag show for his neighbors. The 14-year-old actor had the opening night crowd at the Eccles roaring so loud, he deserves a bigger platform on his next project. – R.S.

(17) Owen Campbell, “As You Are”
Best known for a memorable recurring role on FX’s “The Americans,” Campbell scores a leading man breakout in first-time director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s haunting teen angst drama. He nails the loneliness of a young man not quite sure of his place in the world and anchors the ’90s-set bizarre love triangle. – G.B.

(18) Charlie Heaton, “As You Are”
A Brit actor soon to be seen in Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” Heaton practically channels a “Running on Empty”-era River Phoenix as the charismatic screw-up wrestling with his budding sexuality. Along with fellow breakout Campbell and “Hunger Games” veteran Amandla Stenberg, “As You Are” delivers three of the strongest teenage performances in recent memory. – G.B.

(19) Kika Magalhaes, “The Eyes of My Mother
Nicolas Pesce’s horror thriller about a solitary woman who lives in a farmhouse is the most terrifying movie to debut at Sundance this year, and it’s anchored by a sublime Norman Bates-like performance from Magalhaes. It’s a compliment to say that she had unsuspecting theater-goers in Park City fleeing for the door. – R.S.

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