‘To the Stars’ among best of the fest from female filmmakers

Liana Liberato and Kara Hayward in To the Stars (2019)
Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato appear in To The Stars by Martha Stephens, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtsey of Sundance Institute | photo by Andrew Reed

Now that the 2019 Sundance Film Festival has ended, I’ve had some time to sit down and reflect on the many films that this year’s festival had to offer.

In terms of women-directed or women-written films, the festival had so much to offer. Even taking the indie episodics into account, there are some very talented and funny women who created pilots. Keep your eyes and ears out for Danielle Uhlarik and Abby McEnany.  Both have their roots in the Chicago improv scene. While Uhlarik created the hysterical Bootstrapped, McEnany turns to real-life experiences for Work in Progress.

One of the things I love about going to these film festivals is making new discoveries. Whether it’s new talent or filmmakers, there’s something for everyone. With regards to the U.S. Dramatic Competition, there are a number of films by women filmmakers. While the Grand Jury Prize went to Clemency, the film that stood out to me the most was To The Stars.

Continuing a trend of period pieces in black and white, the cinematography in the Oklahoma-set To The Stars is beautiful. Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato lead a star-studded cast in Martha Stephens’ new feature. I sat down with both the stars and director during the fest. If you’re a fan of the late My Boys on TBS, you’ll be happy to know that Jordana Spiro delivers an award-worthy performance.

With regards to Clemency, actress Alfre Woodard will certainly have her name in the Best Actress race. The actress brings so many emotional layers into the complexities of the role. Who knew just how much emotion went into serving as a prison warden of prisoners on death row? Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu made history by becoming the first-ever black woman to take home the Grand Jury Prize in festival history.

Also playing in the Dramatic Competition was Before You Know It. Hannah Pearl Utt proves to be quite the triple threat as director, co-writer, and star. Utt co-wrote the script with her co-star, Jen Tullock. Both of them play a pair of sisters who surprisingly learn that their mother is alive following the sudden death of their father.

I cannot say enough good things about Late Night. Nisha Ganatra directs from a very smart screenplay written by Mindy Kaling, who not only wrote the film but she also co-stars in the dramedy. The hysterically funny puts the spotlight on women in a television comedy industry that is predominantly male.  This is not an understatement to say in the slightest.  Emma Thompson, starring as late-night comedian Katherine Newbury, crushes the role as the British ex-pat.  We learn early on that she doesn’t have a single female writer, which leads to Mindy Kaling’s Molly Patel being hired. Even though she’s a “diversity hire”, nobody is willing to give her a chance.

There was a trio of movies that I found to make the best use of music. Only two of these films, however, were directed by women: Troop Zero and Blinded by the Light.

Bert & Bertie direct Troop Zero from a script written by Lucy Alibar. It’s a fun throwback to the 1970s when Christmas Flint puts a Birdie Scout troop together in hope of getting on NASA’s Golden Record. This is easier said than done but the soundtrack is one of the best parts. It’s one that makes great use of David Bowie’s music with a talent show number to “Space Oddity.” Mckenna Grace leads a star-studded cast that includes Allison Janney, Viola Davis, and Jim Gaffigan. Everyone looks like they’re having so much fun. There’s a few kids in this cast that will definitely have a solid future ahead of them. However, Johanna Colón is the young actress who stole the show.

Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha was back at Sundance to showcase Blinded by the Light. This is a cast that features quite a few discoveries. Among them is Viveik Kalra as Javed and Nell Williams as Eliza. The film is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir. Manzoor is a Bruce Springsteen superfan and this film serves as a stunning tribute to the great New Jersey singer-songwriter. Springsteen’s music played a tremendous role in helping the writer to find his voice.  This is a guy who exercised his creativity by way of poetry without his family finding out.  There are just over a dozen Springsteen songs that make their way into the film. Some songs– such as “Promised Land” and “Born to Run”–make more than one appearance. If I have to choose a favorite set piece, it’s got to be “Born to Run.”

Some of these films have distribution while others are still waiting to be acquired.

© Danielle Solzman (2/22/19) FF2 Media

Viveik Kalra, Nell Williams and Aaron Phagura appear in Blinded by the Light by Gurinder Chadha, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nick Wall.
Photo credits: Sundance Film Festival
Tags: Before You Know It, Blinded by the Light, Clemency, Late Night, Sundance Film Festival, To the Stars, Troop Zero

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Danielle Solzman is a Chicago-based film critic and an aspiring filmmaker if she can ever put enough time aside to work on her feature-length trans-led political comedy script. When not in Chicago, she attends various film festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and Toronto. She graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a BA in Public Relations while earning a Masters in Media Communications from Webster University after writing a thesis paper on comic books against the backdrop of the American political culture.
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