Sundance 2020 Put the Spotlight on Diversity and Promising Young Women

Andy Samberg time-loop comedy “Palm Springs” broke sales records (by the cheeky sum of 69¢), and “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” inspired a mini mob scene at an otherwise star-starved Sundance. But in the end, the film that defined the 2020 edition of America’s most important indie-movie showcase was a #MeToo revenge thriller called “Promising Young Woman.”

If every film festival falls somewhere along a spectrum that ranges from progressive to staunchly stuck-in-its-ways, Sundance stands for positive change, especially on the representation and inclusion front. Perhaps it’s easier for the Utah-based fest to champion relatively marginalized talents, since the program favors new voices over established auteurs (whereas Venice defends its male-dominated selection by claiming there simply aren’t enough women making movies at the level of, say, Roman Polanski), but Sundance outdid itself this year, filling out one of its strongest lineups in memory with a diversity of voices, approaches and characters.

While Swift was sucking up most of the oxygen on opening night, half a dozen other films demonstrated what the 11-day event had in store: “Dear White People” creator Justin Simien’s horror comedy “Bad Hair” tried its hand at the tricky blend of genre scares and social satire seen three years earlier in Sundance-launched “Get Out”; Obama-backed “Crip Camp” challenged stereotypes about people with disabilities; and “Blindspotting” director Carlos López Estrada’s “Summertime” assembled nearly two dozen Angelenos of diverse backgrounds (all linked by Get Lit, a poetry program for at-risk teens) and let them rap about life in L.A.

Popular on Variety

The next day, the first film to screen in U.S. Dramatic Competition was “Zola,” a rowdy retelling of stripper A’Ziah “Zola” King’s 2015 tweet storm, from director Janicza Bravo. One of two A24 movies in competition (the indie distrib, which has made its reputation on such stylized millennial romps as “Spring Breakers” and “American Honey,” also acquired Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” at the fest), “Zola” challenges the stereotypes that surround sex workers and the men they manage — boyfriends, pimps and clients — even more than last year’s “Hustlers” did. If “A24” were an adjective, “Zola” would be the most A24 movie ever made.

With shots of characters urinating and a montage of flaccid genitalia, “Zola” divided audiences — but that’s something programmers ought to encourage at film festivals. “Promising Young Woman” divided audiences too, as did “Possessor,” a horror movie from David Cronenberg’s son Brandon; and Edson Oda’s competition film “Nine Days.” Being sensitive to issues like representation doesn’t mean playing it safe. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s “Off the Record” may have been too hot for Oprah, who dropped out as an executive producer just before the festival, but the doc speaks truth to power by giving a platform to Russell Simmons’ accusers.

If pressed to find a theme that encompasses 100-plus new features at this year’s gathering, the festival seems to have been all about “promising young women,” both on screen and behind the camera. For instance, Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” recognizes that one of the major obstacles to having a fair discussion of abortion is that it’s virtually hidden from public view: Her movie brings to light the lengths a seemingly ordinary teen (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) must go to terminate her pregnancy. Like Hittman, “Madeline’s Madeline” director Josephine Decker has been invited to Sundance before, but in “Shirley” she finds the perfect material for her singular, splintered-reality style — and a leading lady up to the challenge in Elisabeth Moss.

Arguably the fest’s highest-profile film, Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias,” united four actors to play Gloria Steinem, the American feminist movement’s original promising young woman. And though “Mamma Mia!” director Phyllida Lloyd’s career is well-established, her latest film, “Herself,” announces the arrival of stage actor Clare Dunne (who also co-wrote) as an abused mother confronted by the Dublin housing crisis — as well as the patriarchal Irish establishment itself — as she struggles to put a roof over her kids’ heads. For those wondering where the women were among this year’s Oscar nominees, both movies belong front and center in the 2020 awards race.

Bravo and Hittman were just two of seven female directors featured in U.S. Dramatic Competition — where playwright-cum-rapper Radha Blank was also a breakout, with her semiautobiographical comedy “The 40-Year-Old Version” — but they were well represented across the board. We won’t know until much later in the year which films the Sundance programmers passed over for other festivals to pick up. Judging by the usual suspects who were admitted (Sundance alums Benh Zeitlin and Sean Durkin’s second features disappointed), diversity was a good idea. And not just in terms of gender. The world needs movies like Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” about growing up Korean in Arkansas, which stands a better chance against its blockbuster competition after winning both the grand jury and audience prizes.

More Film

  • Nardjes A.

    ‘Invisible Life’s’ Karim Ainouz Drops Trailer for 'Nardjes A.’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    On Feb. 14 last year, Karim Aïnouz arrived in Algeria to trace via the story of his parents the Algerian Revolution which happened 60 years ago – its 1954-62 War of Independence from France. The uprising he very quickly started to shoot, however, was one happening right then, the Revolution of Smiles, whose first street [...]

  • Call of the Wild

    Harrison Ford in 'The Call of the Wild': Film Review

    Dogs, in their rambunctious domesticated way, can lead us overly civilized humans a step or two closer to the natural world. So it’s only fitting that the best dog movies have saluted that unruly canine spirit without a lot of artificial flavoring. Hollywood’s classic dog tales, like “Old Yeller” (1957) or “Lassie Come Home” (1943), [...]

  • Adventures of a Mathematician

    Indie Sales Unveils Trailer For 'Adventures of a Mathematician' (EXCLUSIVE)

    In the run up to Berlin’s European Film Market, Indie Sales has unveiled the trailer for Thor Klein’s “Adventures of a Mathematician” which had its world premiere in Palm Springs. The film tells the inspiring true story of a Polish-Jewish mathematician who got a fellowship at Harvard and went on to join the prestigious Manhattan [...]

  • Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE

    How Internet Backlash Helped 'Sonic the Hedgehog' Avoid Box Office Disaster

    It’s not a stretch to say Universal’s “Cats” and Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” had two of the most polarizing movie trailers in recent memory. Both caught fire online for all the wrong reasons after fans on social media torched the questionable CGI. “Cats,” an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, used a new science called [...]

  • Neumond Berlin Germany Restaurant

    Berlin Offers Diversity in Restaurant Scene

    Berlin Film Festival attendees have a chance to sample the diverse cuisine of a foodie city. Some of the top pics for a pre-film repast: Adana Grillhaus  A hugely popular Turkish restaurant in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, Adana Grillhaus now has a second location right around the corner. Popular on Variety Manteuffelstr. 86 +49 30 6127790 [...]

  • my salinger year

    Berlin Festival's New Selection Committee Takes Off

    Berlin’s new seven-member selection committee — four women and three men — comprises the core of new director Carlo Chatrian’s programming staff, which is led Canadian critic Mark Peranson. Peranson was the Locarno Film Festival’s chief of programming when Chatrian headed that Swiss festival. This year, Berlin is opening with “My Salinger Year,” starring Sigourney [...]

  • Mariette Rissenbeek Berlin Film Festival Executive

    Mariette Rissenbeek Faces Challenges as Berlin Festival Executive Director

    Making her debut as the new executive director of the Berlin Film Festival this year, Mariette Rissenbeek is facing some big challenges after taking over management duties at one of the world’s biggest public film fests. Rissenbeek and new artistic director Carlo Chatrian succeed Dieter Kosslick, who left an indelible mark on the fest after [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content