SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2017: FOUR FILMS TO KNOW

By: Brook Barnes

November 30th, 2016 — The next Sundance Film Festival will lean into its progressive sweet spots, with topics like the environment, race relations and gender figuring prominently in the competition lineup.

The selections announced on Wednesday — 32 American-made features and documentaries, all world premieres, that compete for prizes — will include “Novitiate,” a drama set in the 1960s about a woman struggling with issues of faith and sexuality; “The Force,” an examination of urban policing; and “Chasing Coral,” which investigates the rapid disappearance of coral reefs around the world.

Sundance will disclose picks for its starrier Premieres section on Monday. Rosters for short films, experimental cinema, horror movies and TV episodes will also be unveiled in the coming days. All told, 113 features were selected from 4,068 submissions, on par with recent years. The festival is scheduled for Jan. 19 to 29 in Park City, Utah, and its environs.

Climate change and environmental preservation, long important topics to Sundance filmmakers (and to the event’s founder, Robert Redford), will figure prominently in all those sections this time around, said John Cooper, the festival’s director. “We wanted, for the first time, to use our programming to drive attention and action around one theme,” he said. “The environment, now more than ever, is a critical topic.”

For a rundown of all 32 films announced on Wednesday, go to Sundance's official posting. Here is a closer look at four of them:

Patti Cake$

Director: Geremy Jasper

Sundance’s competition, where films like “Whiplash,” “The Birth of a Nation” and “Blackfish” were first seen, can be a little solemn. Not so with Mr. Jasper’s entry, a comedic drama about a New Jersey woman named Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Killa P, a.k.a. Patti Cake$. She’s “a big girl with big dreams of rap superstardom,” according to Sundance materials. The Australian actress Danielle Macdonald plays the lead. Mr. Jasper has never directed a feature film before, but he is well-known on the music video circuit, having directed videos for acts like Florence and the Machine.

The Yellow Birds

Director: Alexandre Moors

Adapted from a novel by Kevin Powers, this is a searing antiwar drama about “kids who go to war too young and get destroyed,” Mr. Cooper said. The cast is filled with fast-rising young stars, including Tye Sheridan (“Mud,” “X-Men: Apocalypse”) and Alden Ehrenreich, who was recently cast as the young Han Solo in a coming “Star Wars” movie. Also appearing in a supporting role is Jennifer Aniston, reuniting with Mark Canton and Courtney Solomon, producers of “Cake,” which brought her awards attention in 2014.

Step

Director: Amanda Lipitz

There are other flashy documentaries in the competition lineup, including Bryan Fogel’s “Icarus,” an exposé about Russian doping in sports, and Brian Knappenberger’s “Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and the Trials of a Free Press.” But something about “Step” has audience-award winner written all over it: Ms. Lipitz documents the senior year of a girls’ high school step team in inner-city Baltimore, capturing moments of hope against a backdrop of social unrest.

Whose Streets?

Directors: Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis

Speaking of social unrest, this “unflinching” documentary — given a high-profile slot on the festival’s opening night — examines the violence in Ferguson, Mo., in the summer of 2014, when a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. “Ferguson has, of course, been documented by the national news media, but you realize in watching this film that a lot of information has been filtered out,” said Trevor Groth, Sundance’s director of programming. “Our understanding is incomplete.”