Every year at the Sundance Film Festival, you see a few films and then decide there is a pattern. At least that is what I've heard. This is my first Sundance, but luckily the films I've seen have left the following impression on me: women rule. It didn't take me 37 years and this film festival to discover that; after all I am a work-at-home father taking care of our toddler, and a freelance film critic. My wife is the breadwinner in our family. When I see an actress taking on that role, I pay attention. It's just like when you drive a Dodge Spirit, you notice all the others on the road. Not every female character at Sundance this year was a strong mother, income earner, or emotional leader of her family, but the one thing they all had in common was the fact that female characters took center stage and dominated this year's festival.
Here are a few of our favorites.
Keira Knightley As Megan in Laggies
Megan is in her late 20s and isn't sure about anything in life. She lies to her fiancé and instead spends time at her new friend Annika's (Chloë Grace Moretz) house. Did I mention Annika is in high school, and lives with her dad Craig (Sam Rockwell)? Megan makes poor decisions, or really no decisions throughout the film. She's desperate to escape her old high school friends by hiding out with high schoolers who, she hopes, will help her figure out some kind of direction in life. Luckily, Lynn Shelton's film isn't asking you to like Megan; just to go on this messy journey with her. It's like Shelton realized it was time for a woman to get to play the role that is normally reserved for a man-boy in a Judd Apatow film.
Kristen Wiig As Maggie in The Skeleton Twins
Maggie hasn't seen her twin Milo (Bill Hader) for 10 years, but after he cheats death they are reunited. Both are depressed, but showcase it in different ways. Since their father's suicide, Maggie has almost always been with someone (currently Lance, played by Luke Wilson), but that doesn't stop her from cheating. She dishes out advice, and routinely acts superior to Milo. Luckily, Wiig still makes it easy to like and root for Maggie even when she's making the poorest of decisions. It's not so much about turning things around and finding happiness as it is about acknowleding why she's so sad in the first place.
Jenny Slate As Donna in Obvious Child
Donna's life isn't exactly going as planned. Sure, she's getting gigs at a local New York comedy club, but her boyfriend dumped her, she's losing her day job, and she's pregnant. What comes next is an honest depiction of the choices a young woman must make, and exactly how the people in her life help her through this difficult time. We've had films like Juno and Knocked Up, and now we thankfully have Donna's journey in Obvious Child.
Zoe Saldana As Maggie in Infinitely Polar Bear
Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) suffers from bipolar disorder in the late '70s. While that in and of itself is difficult, his wife Maggie must try to lift the family out of poverty by going back to school. Juggling school with a bipolar husband and two young girls sounds difficult, but on top of it all she must leave Boston for New York to get that education. I haven't seen my kid for six days and I can't imagine being able to see a silver lining if it meant being apart from him for years, but that's what Maggie must do to secure a healthy future for her family.
Kate Hudson As Sarah in Wish I Was Here
What's harder than being away from your bipolar husband and two kids? Being the only one with a job while your unsuccessful actor husband (Zack Braff) whines, mopes and complains about his dreams and daddy issues. She's stuck in a job she doesn't enjoy, and must watch Aidan half-ass his attempt to homeschool their children. For years I've discounted Hudson's films, but she made me cry when her character Sarah spoke to Saul (Mandy Patinkin) about family. Let me repeat: Kate Hudson made me cry. That is strength, people.
Marjane Satrapi, director of The Voices
The Voices is one of the funniest films at Sundance, but that's not what will be truly remembered with this film. Michael R. Perry's demented script is brought to life wonderfully by Marjane Satrapi. Ryan Reynolds plays Jerry. His foul-mouthed cat and caring dog talk to him. What transpires is a dark comedy at its best. Satrapi captures moments where you have to laugh because otherwise it's just too uncomfortable. You will cringe and care, which is an insanely difficult combination to pull off. While I didn't care for her previous work, Chicken with Plums, I will now make sure to finally see Persepolis, and maybe even the unheard-of The Gang of the Jotas. Most importantly, I can't wait to sit through The Voices for a second time.
Patricia Arquette As Olivia in Boyhood
When people first mention Richard Linklater's Boyhood, they'll talk about the fact that he shot it over a 12-year period. Hopefully after that they'll mention the wonderful work from Ellar Coltrane and Patricia Arquette. Arquette plays Olivia, a single mom raising a boy and girl. Her ex (Ethan Hawke) sweeps in to play the hero on occasion, but she has to do all of the heavy lifting. The other men in her life also have their problems, and Olivia must decide what is right for her and her family many times throughout the film, making one difficult decision after the next. It's Arquette's best performance since True Romance, and the sort of character who may help other women in disturbing domestic situations rise up and make healthy decisions for themselves and their own families.
Essie Davis As Amelia in Babadook
It's been seven years, but Amelia hasn't really recovered from her husband's death. Plus, her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) isn't the most normal of children. To make things worse, a children's book named Mr. Babadook comes along in this horror film. It's creepy, Samuel starts going nuts, and it's up to Amelia (on no sleep) to keep everything sane. Davis gives a wonderful performance as a frazzled mom, and part of me wanted someone to just yell "Get over it!" with regards to her dead husband, but I have a hard time believing I could do any better dealing with a kooky kid, his potentially possessed book, and absolutely no sleep. Hell, I'm barely even going to midnight screenings here at Sundance because I need my full eight hours of beauty rest.
Update: The following women have been added to this piece by Erik Davis.
Tessa Thompson as Samantha White in Dear White People
As the strong, confident and darkly comedic Samantha White, Tessa Thompson steals much of this social satire about the lives of four black students at an Ivy League college that favors its light-skinned students. That favoritism is most prevalent when it comes to housing, which is one of many things White protests throughout the film in her racially-charged campus radio broadcasts. But when her words elicit more hate than change, White begins to have second thoughts about what it means to be the leader of a cause. Meanwhile, Thompson is fantastic in a role that allows her to evolve in a number of ways, stripping stereotypes while providing a voice for a generation of young black men and woman who've never been portrayed on screen quite like this before.
Brit Marling as Karen in I Origins
The refreshing, non-sexual representation of Brit Marling's character Karen in I Origins is what makes her performance stand out moreso than others. In the film Marling plays a scientist who, along with her lab partner (played by Michael Pitt), is on the verge of making one of the most significant discoveries of humankind. And while romance does factor into the film, it is in no way a focus for Marling's character, whose smarts prevail over her beauty.
Kristen Stewart as Amy Cole in Camp X-Ray
In a unique and challenging role for Kristen Stewart, here she plays a lost soul who turns to the military for purpose in the emotional prison drama Camp X-Ray, which tracks Stewart's Amy Cole as she suits up to play a guard at Guantanamo Bay. This is a side of Stewart we really haven't seen yet, as she crushes beer cans on her forehead and deals with the complexities of working at a prison housing men who may or may not have connections to foreign terrorists. Not only is she one of only a few women in the film, but Stewart holds her own quite well, especially once her character befriends an inmate who causes her to rethink her own beliefs.
Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko in Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
One of the most exciting international stars of late shows off some serious acting chops in this dark, sad and hauntingly beautiful tale of a woman whose obsession with the fictional buried treasure featured in the film Fargo takes her on a journey to the very source of her own insanity. Rinko Kikuchi is excellent as the closeted, close-minded Kumiko, as the film--itself split into two clear parts; one set abroad and one set in and around Fargo, North Dakota-- peels back various emotional layers of her character as she continually adds more physical layers of clothing. Just a fascinating portrayal of mental illness executed brilliantly by Kikuchi, who's beginning to show signs of real greatness.
Check out more of our coverage of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
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