You can never quite tell what is going to come down from Sundance's mountain.
Last year, the indie-centric film festival delivered both major awards contenders (Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, the accidentally zeitgeist-catching doc Weiner), oddball curiosities (Swiss Army Man, starring the flatulent corpse of Daniel Radcliffe), and high-profile duds (Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation). And, as befitting the Wild West of film distribution, a rash of films that would barely see the light of an art-house theatre, let alone a multiplex (Joshy, The Free World, Mr. Pig, The Hollars, and other titles unrecognizable to 2016 audiences).
Next year's festival promises a twist, though – even if it's an accidental one. In the wake of Donald Trump's election in the United States, Robert Redford's traditionally left-leaning Park City, Utah, festival looks to offer an aggressively progressive counter-narrative to the current political climate, especially as Sundance, which runs Jan. 19-29, will overlap with the presidential inauguration. Although the lineup was finalized before the Nov. 8 election, it cannot help but read like a syllabus for Anti-Trump 101.
The largest hints can be found in the festival's documentary program, which flick at Trump's policy both domestic and abroad. First, there are the two Syria-focused docs, Feras Fayyad and Steen Johannessen's Last Men in Aleppo, which follows the bomb-relief group the White Helmets as they deal with a decimated city, and Matthew Heineman's City of Ghosts, a portrait of citizen journalists who came together after Raqqa was ravaged by ISIS. The filmmakers behind both projects have strong pedigrees – Fayyad has worked on previous Syria-focused docs, while Heineman is the director of the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land – which should bode well for their prospects outside the sometimes insular festival environment, and no doubt spark reflection on the president-elect's obtuse stance on the conflict.
On the home front, expect lots of weighty dialogue about Peter Nicks' The Force, which takes a critical look at the Oakland Police Department; Sabaah Jordan and Damon Davis's Whose Streets?, a postmortem on the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson; the race-focused Quest: The Fury and the Sound, from Jonathan Olshefski; and Peter Bratt's Dolores, a bio-doc on Dolores Huerta, co-founder of America's first farm workers' union.
For the first time, Sundance is also carving out a themed slate in its doc programming, focusing on climate change – another issue that will define the incoming POTUS's administration. Marina Zenovich's Water & Power: A California Heist, Jiuliang Wang's Plastic China, Jeff Orlowski's Chasing Coral, and Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau's Trophy will all surely find themselves offered up as talking points as Trump takes office.
Even the narrative lineup feels laced with real-world anxiety, with Alexandre Moors's The Yellow Birds and Francis Lee's God's Own Country primed to make particular impact. The former is a drama starring such rising stars as Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse), Jack Huston (American Hustle), and Alden Ehrenreich (the upcoming Han Solo movie), and focuses on the PTSD-ridden lives of soldiers returning home from overseas battle. The latter, meanwhile, pivots on the migrant-worker controversy in Europe.
But it's not all poli-sci at Sundance. As usual, the festival will unveil a handful of dramas and comedies that each hope to become the next Little Miss Sunshine (which used its 2006 Sundance premiere as a launching pad to eventual Academy Award success).
Promising contenders include Dave McCary's Brigsby Bear, designed as a twisted comedy starring Saturday Night Live's Kyle Mooney and Claire Danes; Brett Haley's The Hero, which casts the molasses-voiced Sam Elliott as a former Western film icon re-examining his past; Gillian Robespierre's Landline, a coming-of-age drama featuring Jenny Slate, star of the 2014 fest breakout Obvious Child; and To the Bone, a look at anorexia from acclaimed television writer Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men).
And there are also the Canadian productions to look out for, which this year includes the music docs Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, and Tokyo Idols, a Canada/U.K./Japan co-production about Japanese girl bands.
But somehow it seems that the Sundance crowd will be talking about matters more close to home this year.