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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.

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.

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