Scoping Out Sundance 2024: the debut delights and sophomore surprises we’re excited for

As film fans board the free shuttles for the year’s first big festival, our Sundance 2024 correspondents set their sights on activist docs, queer romances, Norwegian zombies and more.

With 2023 in the rearview (have you perused our Year in Review yet?), the first pages are turned on a fresh calendar: twelve months of enticing new features for us to open our hearts and souls to. The frigid air of Park City, Utah is never more inviting than in late January, when the independent-forward Sundance Film Festival rolls into town. The Letterboxd mic will be on the ground, so if you’re also there keep an eye out for us in a chilly queue, an early morning bistro or late-night club. We’ll be online, too, as Sundance is one of the few major fests post-pandemic to still offer on-demand access (for those geographically in the US). 

The aim is to watch as many of the year’s new indie films as possible between frenzied shuttles and meager minutes of sleep. Based on available intelligence, first-look images and what we know of the filmmaking teams behind this year’s titles, Adesola Thomas, Katie Rife, Leo Koziol, Mitchell Beaupre and Alejandra Martinez round up what they’re looking forward to the most from this year’s fest. Although, of course, part of the fun of any festival is the element of surprise. We’ll know soon enough which picture is going to have us thinking about it all year long. 

Arab drag queen Layla is looking for love.
Arab drag queen Layla is looking for love.

Snow, Sex, Skateboards and Meditations

Adesola Thomas

Memory, womanhood and self-determination were cinematic throughlines in my Sundance 2023 experience, with documentaries like Kokomo City, Milisuthando, The Eternal Memory and The Disappearance of Shere Hite gracing my laptop screen and lingering in my brain weeks after the fest wrapped. Beyond epidemiological safety and the proximity of my own kitchen fridge, the beauty of virtual attendance is the breadth of films available to see in succession. I’ll take a lilting Australian family drama in the morning and a Los Angeles alt-comedy in the early afternoon, thank you. Spare no mumble, bring on the core of the core.

For Sundance 2024, I’m embracing Park City theaters in real life. As an ATLien seasoned in the extreme of humid, wet heat, I’m excited (re: anxious) to brave the billowy Utah snow, or devil’s dandruff, alongside filmmakers and festival attendees. Tundra? I hardly know her.

My schedule’s a blend of tender coming-of-age narratives, international gender-queering love stories and digital identity docs. High on the list is Sean Wang’s late 2000s-set feature debut Dìdi (弟弟), following a Taiwanese American teenage boy who dwells in the hyphen of his cultural identities, and learns to skateboard and kiss. Speaking of kissing, bring on the queer romances and sex retrospectives! Writer-director Amrou Al-Kadhi’s Layla follows the titular Arab drag queen’s first time falling in love, while Jules Rosskam’s genre-bending Desire Lines centers the transmasculine identity, erotic expression and sexual self-discovery of the film’s time-traveling trans Iranian protagonist. More melanated queer people traveling through time! Stat!

In Oakland-set Freaky Tales—the latest feature from It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Half Nelson duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck—teen punks, an NBA all-star, skinheads and redemption-hungry henchmen are threaded together. Character actor and franchise papi Pedro Pascal leads the picture, to boot. Esteban Arango’s dreamy crime-thriller, the Jersey-set Ponyboi, is a homecoming tale where an intersex sex worker navigates conflict with local mobsters. Somebody even gave Dylan O’Brien a clean fade for the film.

Big love to documentaries as well. In Seeking Mavis Beacon, Bay Area-raised, New York-based filmmaker Jazmin Jones explores the digital life of the eponymous Haitian cover model for a popular 1980s typing program—as a result, Jones also digs implicitly into the inclusion of Black women and their technological contributions in our collective memory. 

Renate Reinsve reunites with Anders Danielsen Lie in Handling the Undead.
Renate Reinsve reunites with Anders Danielsen Lie in Handling the Undead.

The Sophomore Success

Katie Rife

For me, this year’s Sundance is all about the follow-up feature. I saw Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair—for my money, the most exciting debut of the decade so far—at the virtual 2021 edition of Sundance, and it’s thrilling to be able to check out their second feature, I Saw the TV Glow, in person. A screening of Rose Glass’s debut Saint Maud where the entire audience gasped in unison at one critical moment (I won’t spoil it, but if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about) is another of my favorite festival memories of recent years. So Love Lies Bleeding, out in March from A24, is at the top of my list as well.

Handling the Undead director Thea Hvistendahl reuniting The Worst Person in the World’s Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie for a movie based on a novel by the author of Let the Right One In, about the dead rising en masse in Oslo, is a project that sounds like it was developed just for me—and it’s a sophomore film, so it fits the theme. Perfection.

All that being said, though it’s wonderful to see filmmakers return (triumphantly, of course) to Sundance, the true joy of being a critic is discovering and championing new voices. The best place to do that is at a shorts program, so you’ll see me at those as well. Who knows? One of them might end up like the Zellner brothers, who debuted at Sundance with their supremely weird four-minute Sasquatch Birth Journal 2 in 2011. They’ve been back several times since then, and are premiering Sasquatch Sunset at the fest this year. That one stars Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough in full-body Sasquatch makeup—better-funded than the short, perhaps, but equally audacious. Warms the heart, doesn’t it? 

The Moogai is being buzzed as the “Indigenous Get Out (2017)”.
The Moogai is being buzzed as the “Indigenous Get Out (2017)”.

Indigenous Film in Focus

Leo Koziol

Last year had major momentum for Indigenous cinema, and the Indigenous works at Sundance 2024 demonstrate that this trend has no intention of slowing. The Moogai is a new horror film made by Indigenous Australian filmmaker Jon Bell. A veteran of television productions (Cleverman, The Warrior), this is his debut feature based on the short of the same name, which did well on the festival circuit back in 2021. The Moogai promises Rosemary’s Baby meets The Babadook meets Get Out as lead Shari Sebbens plays an Aboriginal mum protecting her baby from the eponymous mythical bogeyman (a traditional Aboriginal tale). After the success of Talk to Me, the Australian cinema scene looks set for another horror hit.

Also looking to make an impact is the feature documentary Sugarcane by Julian Brave Noisecat (co-directed by Emily Kassie). An established Indigenous writer and activist, Noisecat was instrumental in advocating for Deb Haaland to successfully become the US Secretary of the Interior and has written for The New York Times and National Geographic. His documentary explores a history of abuse and missing children at an Indian residential school that ignites a reckoning with the past.

Other Indigenous-themed works (by non-Native filmmakers) include The Battle for Laikipia, about the generations-old conflict between Indigenous pastoralists and white landowners in Laikipia, Kenya, a wildlife conservation haven, and Frida, a new documentary about Frida Kahlo, the renowned artist who was of Mexican, German and Purépecha descent.

André Holland (with Andra Day) paints to get through the pain.
André Holland (with Andra Day) paints to get through the pain.

Acting Aces and Bumps in the Night

Mitchell Beaupre

I may not be joining my colleagues in the fresh powder on the Park City streets this year, but my fourth annual Sundance experience will see me again taking advantage of its robust online selection—in full appreciation of the commitment to offering viewing options for those who can’t make the trip up the slopes. As we’re racing into the fast lane for this year’s final stretch of the awards season, I can’t help but wonder what films are going to be kicking off their campaign a year early at Sundance 2024, the way Past Lives did twelve months ago when its effusive praise could be felt all the way on the East Coast.

Exhibiting Forgiveness certainly sounds like it’s going to hit the right chords, focusing on an artist who uses his paintings to let go of his past. Andra Day and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor have primary roles, but it’s leading man André Holland who I’m still waiting to get his big moment in the sun after many years delivering knockout work across The Knick, Moonlight, High Flying Bird and more. Speaking of actors who have never gotten their due, it’s time for the James Le Gros comeback baby, and I’m ready for it to start with Good One. This tale of a seventeen-year-old backpacker (Lily Collias) contending with the egos of her father (Le Gros) and his best friend (Danny McCarthy) will see director India Donaldson join directors Kelly Reichardt, David Fincher, Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Kathryn Bigelow and just about every great American independent auteur of the last three decades to have worked with Le Gros.

When I’m done marveling over the work of these incredible performers (shoutout to the great Carol Kane, who I’m looking forward to seeing paired with Letterboxd’s Most Watched Actor of 2023, Jason Schwartzman, in Between the Temples), I’ll enjoy the real sinister pleasure of online Sundance: no one being able to see me shriek and squirm while watching all the horror. Past years have seen my bones chilled by the likes of Speak No Evil and Coming Home in the Dark; this time, like Katie, I’ve got my sights nervously set on Handling the Undead, a Norwegian daytime horror that takes the relationship frights of The Worst Person in the World’s Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie and makes them physical as they’re besieged by zombie hordes. Hate when that happens. 

Sebastian Stan is A Different Man.
Sebastian Stan is A Different Man.

Extraordinary Docs and the Body Electric

Alejandra Martinez

As I prepare for my inaugural Sundance Film Festival, armed with my first pair of snow boots and a steady supply of wool socks, I’m ready to be kept warm by the 2024 slate of great documentaries and narrative features. For starters, this Texan is happy to find a bit of home in Utah via the God Save Texas documentary series. The three films, helmed by Texan filmmakers including Richard Linklater and Iliana Sosa, look at specific issues across the state and take a closer glance at a place that’s more nuanced than people give it credit for.

There are also docs examining extraordinary figures, like Frida, which uses excerpts from the artist’s own words to tell her story. Similarly, Igualada follows the presidential campaign of Francia Márquez, a Black Colombian activist. Meanwhile, nonfiction offerings like Eternal You and Love Machina grapple with the collision between AI and existential preoccupations.

On the narrative side of things, both Desire Lines and My Old Ass caught my attention for their very different, specific focuses on time travel as a tool to reflect on sexuality and oneself, respectively. Although there’s a wealth of horror and genre films to see, I Saw the TV Glow and horror-comedy Freaky Tales are near the top of my list. Finally, A Different Man, the story of an actor changing his face, has a potentially interesting turn from Sundance veteran Sebastian Stan. 

The 2024 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 18–28. Follow Festiville for all our festival coverage, as well as Sundance’s own Letterboxd HQ for updates year-round. Our thanks to Sundance’s Press Inclusion Initiative, which enables us to widen our coverage. 

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