The virtual Sundance Film Festival concluded with a virtual awards show — no host this year, just a series of statements and videos parceled out across two hours via Twitter. It was a strangely anti-climactic way of wrapping a low-key festival, even as it gave winners a chance to prep polite, crew-inclusive acceptance speeches.
The top prize in the U.S. Dramatic category went to grand jury winner “Nanny,” from first-time director Nikyatu Jusu, a supernatural-tinged thriller about an undocumented immigrant stuck caring for another mother’s child in order to raise the funds needed to bring her son over from Senegal.
The audience award winner in the same category was “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” in which writer-director Cooper Raiff plays an inexperienced party promoter who falls for a single mom (Dakota Johnson) attending many of his events. The crowd-pleaser marked the biggest sale of the festival so far, scooped up by Apple for $15 million — 1,000 times the budget of Raiff’s SXSW-winning debut, “Shithouse.”
The Festival Favorite award went to “Navalny.” This prize, selected by audiences from across all sections of the festival, recognizes a late addition to the lineup (“Navalny” was not announced until this past Monday), protected on account of its political sensitivity, as the documentary tracks Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny while he was recovering from an assassination attempt in Berlin. Accepting the honor, director Daniel Roher said, “Navalny would be so thrilled if he knew he won the People’s Choice award.”
While “Navalny” may have been the popular choice, the U.S. Documentary jury awarded co-directors Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s “The Exiles,” a high-concept re-examination of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre through various eyewitnesses. The project marked a (virtual) return to Sundance for veteran doc helmer Christine Choy (“Who Killed Vincent Chin?”).
In recent years, the once-U.S.-centric festival’s world competition categories have emerged as a key launchpad for international films (like “Hive” and “Flee” last year). Expect to hear plenty more about World Dramatic grand jury winner “Utama” in the coming months, as director Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s portrait of an elderly Bolivian couple deciding whether to abandon their climate-endangered Altiplano home seems well-positioned to represent the country come Oscar time.
Other key international indie winners include “All That Breathes” (World Documentary grand prize) and Amazon-based environmental doc “The Territory,” which earned both the audience prize and a special jury mention.
In the NEXT category, trans portrait “Framing Agnes” won both the audience prize and the Joey Soloway-presented Innovator Award.
Delivering the most personal of the acceptance speeches, wheelchair-using filmmaker Reid Davenport — whose “I Didn’t See You There” won U.S. Documentary directing honors — addressed the film community: “There are disabled artists out there trying to get their stories heard, so I ask you — filmmakers, industry leaders, funders, programmers, artists — to seek them out and to let them in.”
After building a streaming platform in order to host a COVID-safe version of the 2021 edition online, Sundance organizers hoped to return with a hybrid virtual and in-person (Park City, Utah-based) event this year. Alas, rising infections due to the Omicron variant forced them to shift the program online again — a blow to sponsors and filmmakers (a number of whom made the trek to Park City anyway). Still, with the infrastructure already in place, the festival was able to make the pivot smoothly, while losing out on much of the excitement and attention generated by the pre-pandemic model.
The full list of winners appears below:
U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION
Grand Jury Prize: “Nanny”
Audience Award: “Cha Cha Real Smooth”
Directing: Jamie Dack, “Palm Trees and Power Lines”
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: K.D. Dávila, “Emergency”
Special Jury Award for Uncompromising Artistic Vision: Bradley Rust Gray, “blood”
Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast: John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva, Connie Britton, Olivia Washington, London Covington, and Michael K Williams, 892”
U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Grand Jury Prize: “The Exiles”
Audience Award: “Navalny”
Directing: Reid Davenport, “I Didn’t See You There”
Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award: Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput, “Fire of Love”
Special Jury Award for Impact for Change: “Aftershock”
Special Jury Award for Impact for Creative Vision: “Descendant”
WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION
Grand Jury Prize: “Utama”
Audience Award: “Girl Picture”
Directing Award: Maryna Er Gorbach, “Klondike”
Special Jury Award: “Leonor Will Never Die”
Special Jury Award for Acting for Innovative Spirit: Teresa Sánchez, “Dos Estaciones”
WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Grand Jury Prize: “All That Breathes”
Audience Award: “The Territory”
Directing Award: “A House Made of Splinters”
Special Jury Award for Documentary Craft: “The Territory”
Special Jury Award for Excellence In Verité Filmmaking: “Midwives”
NEXT Audience Award: “Framing Agnes”
NEXT Innovator Award: Chase Joynt, “Framing Agnes”
Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize: “After Yang”
Sundance Institute NHK Award: Hasan Hadi, “The President’s Cake”
Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Narrative Features: Amanda Marshall, “God’s Country”
Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Documentary Features: Su Kim, “Free Chol Soo Lee”
Sundance Institute/Adobe Mentorship Award for Editing Documentary: Toby Shimin