Another snow-clad Sundance Film Festival is behind us, with some of the year’s best-in-class independent movies having taken their initial public bows across the mountains of Utah (and in some cases online too, in a partly hybrid festival model).
When it comes to launching the careers of actors in earnest—think America Ferrera in Real Women Have Curves or Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station—or giving established names a new avenue to stretch their acting muscles with, Sundance still holds a sweet spot among film festivals, brimming with a wide range of performances that set Park City abuzz this year.
Here are the actors—both breakthrough and household names—that put a memorable stamp on the 2024 Sundance in its 40th anniversary edition.
Lily Collias, Good One
This isn’t Collias’ first feature role, but India Donaldson’s debut, the slow-burning feminist drama Good One, is the film that is bound to put her on the map in a major way. Collias plays Sam, a teen on a Catskills hiking trip who feels increasingly saddled by her father and his best friend’s biting micro-aggressions. Collias’ quiet performance, which hinges on silences, subtle sighs, overburdened looks and occasional humor, is remarkable to witness. Watching her, one recalls discovering the likes of Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) in Sundance. Collias has the potential to become just as big a deal.
Saoirse Ronan, The Outrun
After a pair of minor missteps like Foe and See How They Run, it was about time for the Brooklyn and Lady Bird stunner to be a part of an unforgettable project worthy of her talents. Demonstrating once again that she is among the finest actors of her generation, Ronan plays Rona in Nora Fingscheidt’s The Outrun, a London woman struggling with alcoholism who finds restorative solace tending to wildlife and fauna on the ocean-battered and windswept Scottish island of her childhood. The film is based on Amy Liptrot’s memoir, but Ronan—a first-time producer here—had the creative freedom to make the part her own. What she ultimately crafts is something devastating that is both physically and emotionally demanding across Rona’s rock-bottom, disoriented and serene moments, edited with a deliberate sense of chaos. Her performance is a breathtaking testament to how committed to she is to crack open even the toughest of materials. She’d be a surefire Oscar contender next year with the right distribution in place.
André Holland, Exhibiting Forgiveness
The fiercely independent actor Holland (Moonlight) should really be among Hollywood’s most sought-after leading men. Look for no further proof of his talent than his turn in artist Titus Kaphar’s scorching drama, Exhibiting Forgiveness, which sees Holland navigating the echoes of his painful childhood and familial trauma with a paintbrush in hand. As the successful artist Tarrell, Holland has the kind of powerhouse screen presence that will break your heart and make it whole again repeatedly, often within the same scene. And his greatest victory here is accomplishing all that effortlessly through a sophisticated, attentively calibrated performance that could have easily turned overly weepy or melodramatic in lesser hands. A stylish film on art with all its therapeutic properties, Exhibiting Forgiveness is waiting for a lucky distributor to unlock its potential.
Sebastian Stan, A Different Man
Across an ever-evolving, versatile career of thrillers, comedies, major blockbusters and even horror, Pam & Tommy and Fresh actor Sebastian Stan sinks his teeth deep into Aaron Schimberg’s psychedelic neo-noir A Different Man, playing a recluse not entirely comfortable in his skin. An aspiring New York actor with a facial disfigurement, Stan’s Edward elects to go through an mysterious medical procedure to alter his physique, ultimately losing out on a stage part that he might have been perfect for. With a suggestively crooked smile, plenty of pent-up turmoil and the discomfort of someone stuck in deep existential crisis, Stan looks right at home in this psychological thriller, the genre he was born to make his playground. Ultimately, his is a near-Shakespearean performance of multilayered identities nesting within one another like Russian Dolls. And Stan is thoroughly in command of every tier. (A Different Man will be released by A24, date TBD.)
Kieran Culkin, A Real Pain
It’s not an easy task for an actor to peel himself away from the iconic TV series he became a worldwide sensation with, but Succession’s Kieran Culkin does just that with A Real Pain, thoughtfully written and directed by Jesse Eisenberg in his sophomore effort behind the camera. Culkin plays the mercurial and deeply-troubled rabble rouser Benji, who is on a commemorative Holocaust tour across Poland with his polar-opposite cousin, David (Eisenberg), amid a deeply reflective and sympathetic group. The film is about all the ways our individual and generational wounds are intertwined, and Culkin’s aching face, even in the actor’s most riotously funny moments (and there are quite a number of those), is a map of someone feeling deep, invisible pain with an undercurrent of melancholy. It’s a triumphant, sneakily heartbreaking performance, one we will fortunately see in theaters in 2024 thanks to Fox Searching nabbing the movie for $10 million. Expect to hear about this one in the next awards season.
Katy O’Brian, Love Lies Bleeding
The ultra-cool Kristen Stewart might be the more recognized name of Rose Glass’ noir-soaked crime-thriller Love Lies Bleeding, but it’s Kathy O’Brian who unapologetically runs away with the movie. With a soaring, outsized (sometimes, literally) and no-holds-barred portrayal of an adrift bodybuilder, O’Brian whisks the audience away on a wild, bloody and increasingly bonkers journey as her druggy Jackie embarks on a romance with Stewart’s lonesome gym manager and goes off the deep end in the process. Uninhabited, very sexy and immensely entertaining, Love Lies Bleeding finds its heart and muscle in O’Brian’s fearlessly brawny performance and will be released by A24 on March 8.
Maisy Stella, My Old Ass
No Sundance is complete without a heartwarming coming-of-age flick that ultimately brings audiences to tears. This year, Megan Park’s My Old Ass was among the titles that scratched that itch through Maisy Stella’s disarmingly vivacious, college-aged Elliot, who miraculously meets her older self (Aubrey Plaza) during a mushroom trip. Stella is simply beguiling as a confident and sexually active queer girl about to leave her idyllic Canadian town for the big city. Watch her loose-limbed performance enchant you while Elliott kicks back with friends over a carefree summer, falls in desperate love with the town’s newcomer and delivers the most perfect Justin Bieber impression imaginable across the youthful and deeply authentic beats of My Old Ass, produced by Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap (of also Barbie). Amazon MGM bought this one for a whopping $15 million, so we can safely expect to see it in release later this year.
Nico Parker, Suncoast
Another coming-of-age tearjerker of this year’s line-up, Laura Chinn’s Suncoast was perhaps not the most talked about Sundance premiere this year. Consider us even more impressed, then, with The Last of Us actor Nico Parker’s lovable and abundantly unassuming performance that rose above the film’s conventions. As Doris, Parker is pitch-perfect as a quiet and often awkward teen overshadowed by her terminally ill brother’s worsening condition, one that demands her mom’s (Laura Linney) undivided attention. Lonesome and emotionally adrift, Parker’s Doris gradually becomes both someone to boundlessly root for, and a young person to learn from as she bravely takes up space outside of her comfort zone, broadens her friend circle (which includes Woody Harrelson’s eccentric, fatherly activist) and reconciles with the emotional weight she’s been unknowingly carrying throughout her brother’s ailment. You can witness Parker’s stunning achievement very soon—Suncoast will be on Hulu February 9, after a brief theatrical run on February 2.
June Squibb, Thelma
If Josh Margolin’s Thelma wasn’t already that movie, we would chant, “Give June Squibb her own Mission: Impossible!” Indeed, the daring 94-year-old actor of Nebraska is Tom Cruise’s true-match here as a grandma (inspired by Margolin’s own) who gets duped by a phone scammer and swears to claim back her stolen funds, centenarian mobility issues and technological obstacles be damned. What awaits Thelma is a dangerous (and often very funny) adventure across the shady corners of Los Angeles, through which Squibb mostly does her own stunts (as she proudly announced in Park City). Most impressively, her Thelma never falls victim to the potentially cutesy pitfalls of story about an old person in Squibb’s hands, thanks to a performance that is sturdy, moving and thoroughly in on the genre joke all the way through the film’s explosive conclusion.