Sundance 2013 Preview: U.S. Dramatic Competition

It’s that time of year again. The Sundance Film Festival has released its lineup of films that will screen during the festival in January. I’ll be there covering the festival, but just so you can get as excited as I am, let’s take a look at the lineup for the U.S. Dramatic Competition category.

The U.S. Dramatic Competition section of films is usually populated with familiar names, both actors and directors. The best way to picture this section is by thinking of the fictional film ‘Queens Boulevard’ from ‘Entourage’. Last year, some notable movies that premiered in this category were ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild‘, ‘Safety Not Guaranteed‘, ‘The Surrogate’ (now known as ‘The Sessions’) and ‘Smashed’. All of those films, save ‘Beasts’, featured familiar actors and directors.

This is the category that at times feels really independent, as evidenced by ‘Beasts’ and at other times doesn’t feel anything close to being independent. Either way, the 16 films listed below are sure to contain one or two titles we’ll be talking about a year from now.

‘Afternoon Delight’

Director and Screenwriter: Jill Soloway
Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor and Jane Lynch

Synopsis: In this sexy, dark comedy, a lost L.A. housewife puts her idyllic hipster life in jeopardy when she tries to rescue a stripper by taking her in as a live-in nanny.

Thoughts: Josh Radnor in a movie with the word “hipster” attached to the synopsis? Well, color me surprised. Radnor has been a Sundance stalwart over the past few festivals as both a director and actor (‘happythankyoumoreplease‘ and ‘Liberal Arts‘). This time around, he’s putting on just the actor’s hat while he stars with funny girl Kathryn Hahn in a movie about strippers and hipsters – two things most often attached to quirky Sundance films. Director Jill Soloway is best known for her work as a producer/writer for TV programs such as ‘United States of Tara’ and ‘Six Feet Under’.

‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’

Director and Screenwriter: David Lowery
Cast: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Nate Parker and Keith Carradine

Synopsis: The tale of an outlaw who escapes from prison and sets out across the Texas hills to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met.

Thoughts: Now that’s quite a cast, right? I’ve seen Ben Foster in a couple of Sundance flicks, as well as Casey Affleck. I’m intrigued by the inclusion of ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ star Rooney Mara. As for the movie’s story, the synopsis is too thin for me to make a judgment. I’ll probably make a point to see this one, though.


Director: Jerusha Hess
Screenwriters: Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale
Cast: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge, Georgia King and James Callis

Synopsis: Thirtysomething, single Jane is obsessed with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. On a trip to an English resort, her fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman become more real than she ever imagined.

Thoughts: I can’t stand ‘Napoleon Dynamite’. The Hess family isn’t really my thing as far as humor go. They tend to go way too far out of their way to be quirky and weird. It’s usually Jared who directs, but this time around screenwriter Jerusha Hess (Jared’s wife) takes the helm of her first feature. Honestly, there are two things that interest me about this: First, the cast features Keri Russell and Bret McKenzie. Second, the thought of someone literally obsessed with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy is amusing. However, I don’t think those two things will draw me to this movie. I’ll probably end up seeing it, but it isn’t one I’ll rearrange my schedule for.


Director and Screenwriter: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare, Corey Stoll, Dean Stockwell, Casey Wilson and Troian Bellisario

Synopsis: In the first ever film adaptation of David Sedaris’ work, a cocky young man travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm. Out of his element, he finds his lifestyle and notions being picked apart by everyone who crosses his path.

Thoughts: I’ve never read any of David Sedaris’ work, so I don’t really know what I’ll be getting into here. All I have to go by is a synopsis that talks about cocky men and apple farms. Apparently, the movie is based on a short story in Sedaris’ essay collection called ‘Naked’. It could be one I’ll see, but doesn’t top my list. I think I’ll search out the short story and read it to see if it gives me any more desire to see the movie.


Director and Screenwriter: Stacie Passon
Cast: Robin Weigert, Maggie Siff, Johnathan Tchaikovsky, Julie Fain Lawrence, Emily Kinney and Laila Robins

Synopsis: After a blow to the head, Abby decides she can’t do it anymore. Her life just can’t be only about the house, the kids and the wife. She needs more: she needs to be Eleanor.

Thoughts: Uh, your guess is as good as mine. Passon is a completely new director, so I may check this out simply because it’s always fun to find and discover new voices in film.

‘Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes’

Director and Screenwriter: Francesca Gregorini
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel, Alfred Molina, Frances O’Connor, Jimmi Simpson and Aneurin Barnard

Synopsis: Emanuel, a troubled girl, becomes preoccupied with her mysterious new neighbor, who bears a striking resemblance to her dead mother. In offering to babysit her newborn, Emanuel unwittingly enters a fragile, fictional world, of which she becomes the gatekeeper.

Thoughts: I guarantee that this is one of those films that goes into Sundance with one title, gets picked up and gets a completely different title from the studio that will be easier to market. As for the movie, I never saw Gregorini’s previous film ‘Tanner Hall’, but word of mouth wasn’t great. Still, the mere mention of Alfred Molina is enough to get me into a seat to see what it’s all about.


Director and Screenwriter: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray

Synopsis: The true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family and strangers on the last day of 2008.

Thoughts: Michael B. Jordan played Wallace on ‘The Wire’, so that may be enough to get people in the theater. Plus, Octavia Spencer usually gives a good performance. This is director Ryan Coogler’s first feature, which is why I’ll probably end up seeing this. Again, it’s fun to discover new talent.

‘In a World…’

Director and Screenwriter: Lake Bell
Cast: Lake Bell, Demetri Martin, Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Ken Marino and Fred Melamed

Synopsis: An underachieving vocal coach is motivated by her father, the king of movie trailer voiceovers, to pursue her aspirations of becoming a voiceover star. Amidst pride, sexism and family dysfunction, she sets out to change the voice of a generation.

Thoughts: ‘In a World…’ takes the cake for the best synopsis from Sundance by far. I mean, how can you not be interested in such a specific and wacky idea? Also, the movie is full of great comedic talent, and I wouldn’t mind going to a screening where I got to see Lake Bell in person.

‘Kill Your Darlings’

Director: John Krokidas
Screenwriters: Austin Bunn and John Krokidas
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHann, Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, David Cross, Kyra Sedgwick and Elizabeth Olsen

Synopsis: An untold story of murder that brought together a young Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs at Columbia University in 1944, providing the spark that led to the birth of an entire generation – their Beat revolution.

Thoughts: ‘Kill Your Darlings’ is already getting strong buzz, mostly due to the robust cast on hand. Radcliffe plays Ginsberg, Huston is Kerouac and Burroughs is played by Foster. This is a movie that will pack theaters night in and night out simply for the cast. Rightfully, it should, since this cast really is quite stellar in every regard.

‘The Lifeguard’

Director and Screenwriter: Liz W. Garcia
Cast: Kristen Bell, Mamie Gummer, Martin Starr, Alex Shaffer, Amy Madigan and David Lambert

Synopsis: A former valedictorian quits her reporter job in New York and returns to the place she last felt happy: her childhood home in Connecticut. She gets work as a lifeguard and starts a dangerous relationship with a troubled teenager.

Thoughts: A lot of Sundance movies focus on moving forward or looking back. This seems like a mixture of both. A woman must confront her past to move on with her life. It’s another movie filled with familiar names and is sure to sell out most of its showings. I’ll see it because, well, refer back to my explanation about Lake Bell, but replace Lake with Kristen.

‘May in the Summer’

Director and Screenwriter: Cherien Dabis
Cast: Cherien Dabis, Hiam Abbass, Bill Pullman, Alia Shawkat, Nadine Malouf and Alexander Siddig

Synopsis: A bride-to-be is forced to re-evaluate her life when she reunites with her family in Jordan and finds herself confronted with the aftermath of her parents’ divorce.

Thoughts: Director Cherien Dabis was at Sundance in 2009 with her feature ‘Amreeka’. Many Sundance directors end up getting invited back, to continue building a name for themselves. ‘May in the Summer’ will be an opening night film, so it will be one that starts getting buzz right at the start. As far as the movie is concerned, it feels very much like a Sundance film. Dealing with familial demons is at the heart of many films that find their way into the festival.

‘Mother of George’

Director: Andrew Dosunmu
Screenwriter: Darci Picoult
Cast: Isaach De Bankolé, Danai Gurira, Anthony Okungbowa, Yaya Alafia and Bukky Ajayi

Synopsis: A story about a woman willing to do anything and risk everything for her marriage.

Thoughts: A simple synopsis, but I’m not sure if it’s enough to get me intrigued to see the movie. There are plenty of movies in the festival that will deal with the pitfalls of marriage and how hard it is to keep one going. I’ll wait to hear word of mouth from my colleagues on this one.

‘The Spectacular Now’

Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Kyle Chandler

Synopsis: Sutter is a high school senior who lives for the moment; Aimee is the introvert he attempts to “save.” As their relationship deepens, the lines between right and wrong, friendship and love, and “saving” and corrupting become inextricably blurred.

Thoughts: ‘The Spectacular Now’ is already one of the most talked about movies of the festival. That’s partly because of the notable faces in the ensemble cast, and also because director James Ponsoldt is returning to the festival. Last year, he premiered ‘Smashed’ at Sundance and showed real talent in creating a lifelike drama about alcoholism. I have no doubt that he’ll be able to create more realism here. He certainly has a very talented cast to work with.

‘Touchy Feely’

Director and Screenwriter: Lynn Shelton
Cast: Rosemarie DeWitt, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page and Josh Pais

Synopsis: A massage therapist is unable to do her job when stricken with a mysterious and sudden aversion to bodily contact. Meanwhile, her uptight brother’s foundering dental practice receives new life when clients seek out his “healing touch.”

Thoughts: Shelton is a Sundance regular. It’s almost like the programming committee has a rubber stamp just for her. She debuted ‘Humpday’ at the festival a few years ago, and showed talent in the Mumblecore genre. Then, last year, she showed the very well-done ‘Your Sister’s Sister‘, which blew me away with its realistic portrayal of three people dealing with very real issues about romance, death and family. Now she’s back with a star studded cast and high expectations.

‘Toy’s House’

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenwriter: Chris Galletta
Cast: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally and Alison Brie

Synopsis: Three unhappy teenage boys flee to the wilderness where they build a makeshift house and live off the land as masters of their own destiny. Or at least that’s the plan.

Thoughts: I don’t know why, but I’m really excited for this movie. I’m a sucker for coming-of-age movies from film festivals. So, one about three boys who take to the woods to live off the land strikes me as something I’d like to see. It may be a modern day ‘Stand by Me’. Well, okay, maybe I’m being a little generous before seeing it. Still, I’m excited nonetheless.

‘Upstream Color’

Director and Screenwriter: Shane Carruth
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth andrew Sensenig and Thiago Martins

Synopsis: A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.

Thoughts: You’ll know Shane Carruth as the director of the acclaimed time travel movie ‘Primer’. It’s been almost a decade, but he’s back with a movie that the Sundance programming teams swears people won’t be able to stop talking about. Don’t ask me to explain anything about that synopsis, because I haven’t a clue. There are rumblings that Carruth’s film may be along the same lines of ‘Tree of Life’ or ‘The Fountain’. Interesting.

Leading up to Sundance we’ll continue to post articles like this that will help you get excited about and understand the movies that will screen at the festival in early 2013. What are some of the movies on this list you’re excited about? Please let us know about it in the Comments.

[Note: The Sundance Film Festival is really the only time I ever use Twitter. Follow me at @AaronPeck to keep up to date with all my movie watching and line waiting when the festival arrives.]


  1. William Henley

    You know, I usually not a Sundance fan, but there actually sounds like a few this year that I am interesting in.I am really happy to hear that, for the most part, the movies aren’t “sexual exploration” movies. Maybe I am judging the whole festival by just a few standouts from the last couple of years, but it seems that Sundance over the past, oh, five years or so seems to be all sexual explortation or some type of preachy movie made to shine light on some issue that no one has cared about in 10 or 20 years. Or some horrible gruesome killing spree movie.

    However, this year, most of the movies actualy sound pretty interesting. There are three that stand out to me:
    1) Kill You Darlings – partly because of the cast, but the synopsis sounds interesting as well.
    2) COG
    3) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (interesting synopsis, not sure how it will play out over an entire movie – sounds like an episode of some prime time crime show)

    • Aaron Peck

      Funny you mention the whole “sexploration” genre, because there actually is a fair share of it at Sundance this year, just not in this section.

      James Franco is involved in three movies at Sundance this year and they all have to do with porn or sex. He has a documentary about (a porn website) that he directed; he’s in a movie called ‘Lovelace’ about Linda Lovelace (played by Amanda Seyfried) the porn star; and he’s also in charge of a movie that tries to piece together the lost footage from William Friedkin’s movie ‘Cruising’ that were cut from the final edit so the movie didn’t get an X rating.

  2. JM

    ‘Before Midnight’ is my most anticipated.

    Park Chan-wook’s ‘Stoker’ I don’t know how to feel about.

    Ashton Kutcher’s Steve Jobs I refuse to see. I’m waiting for the Sorkin.

    ‘Very Good Girls’ with Elizabeth Olsen…

    Anything with Guy Pearce, Alexander Skarsgård, or Tony Danza I’ll watch.

    • Aaron Peck

      The post for the Premiere section that you’re talking about should be up soonish.

      Look forward to some fun discussions with you as the festival starts up. And we start reviewing the films.

  3. JM

    ‘In A World…’ written by Lake Bell…

    She better do her own voiceover for the trailer.

    This already sounds twice as promising as Angelina Jolie’s ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey.’

    Hot female screenwriters are becoming the new hollywood. Maybe the number of scripts written by women will double from 2% to 4%.

    I just hope Lake Bell can actually write, and this isn’t like Shia LaBeouf’s self-published comic books.

    Because she could totally become the new Julie Delpy.

  4. HuskerGuy

    Not much of a follower of Sundance, but I understand Dave Grohl has a film he’s been heavily involved in that will be appearing. Think it’s called Sound City. As a big Grohl fan I am curious about it.

    • Aaron Peck

      Yup, it’s a music documentary.

      Synopsis: Through interviews and performances with the legendary musicians and producers who worked at America’s greatest unsung recording studio, Sound City, we explore the human element of music, and the lost art of analog recording in an increasingly digital world.

      I’ll have more when I post up the Premiere Docs section.

  5. EM

    Going just by the information here, my favorite bundle of potential is In a World…. I’ve liked Lake Bell as an actress, I also like the kookiness of the “specific and wacky idea”, and I envision some satire of cinema.

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