COVID-19 isn’t putting the brakes on Sundance 2022. The fest has gone digital once again this year due to the pandemic, but we’re thankful the show will go on — online, where we’ll be able to enjoy dozens of films helmed by women from the safety of our homes. This year’s lineup features titles from newcomers and industry vets alike. Our most anticipated titles include some directorial debuts and offerings from familiar names such as Oscar-nominated “Carol” scribe Phyllis Nagy. Our Sundance preview is just a taste of what to expect this year. Other highlights from the program include “Nothing Compares,” Kathryn Ferguson’s portrait of controversial Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, and Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen’s “Calendar Girls,” a doc about a Florida dance team comprised of women over 60.
Sundance runs from January 20-30. We’ll be rolling out interviews with directors throughout the fest.
Synopses are courtesy of the festival.
“Master” – Written and Directed by Mariama Diallo
What it’s about: Three women strive to find their place at an elite New England university. As the insidious specter of racism haunts the campus in increasingly supernatural fashion, each fights to survive in this space of privilege.
Why we’re excited: Regina Hall has been on our radar a long time, but it was her Indie Spirit Award-nominated role as a manager at a Hooters-type restaurant in “Support the Girls” that really stole our hearts. Over two decades ago Hall appeared in “Scary Movie,” one of her first films, a horror spoof poking fun at “Scream,” “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” and the like. Now she’s offering a fresh spin on the horror genre with “Master,” Mariama Diallo’s feature debut, the story of a woman who is promoted to dean of her university, a role that comes with the title of “Master.”
“The word ‘master’ is so full and multifaceted — and so absolutely loaded. I spent a lot of time thinking about the word itself, and from there the story began to evolve,” Diallo told us in a soon-to-be-published interview. “I knew early on that I wanted to follow a black woman who had been given the academic title of ‘Master.’ I wanted to watch how she responded to the expectation placed on her, and how her behavior and perspective changed as a result.”
Horror has been far too white for far too long. We’re glad to see “Master” joining other recent titles like “Us,” “His House,” and “Candyman” in not only putting Black characters front and center, but using a genre that all too often perpetuates racism as a vehicle to thoughtfully explore it.
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” – Directed by Sophie Hyde; Written by Katy Brand
What it’s about: Nancy Stokes, a retired school teacher, is yearning for some adventure, and some sex. Good sex. And she has a plan: she hires a young sex worker named Leo Grande.
Why we’re excited: First, we love the film’s star, Emma Thompson. That basically goes without saying. Second, we’re big fans of Sophie Hyde’s last movie, “Animals,” the story of a close female friendship approaching its expiration date. Third, and probably most importantly, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” takes a different approach — at least for movies — in its depiction of sex work and sexual awakenings.
On-screen, it’s usually an older man who hires a decades-younger female sex worker who changes his life; and for the most part, women only discover their sexuality, or new facets of their sexuality, when they’re teenagers or young adults — as if a person’s sexual side doesn’t evolve as they do. “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” turns these hoary concepts on their head: this time, an older woman hires a much younger male sex worker in order to explore her sexuality on her terms. Suffice to say that we, like the film’s protagonist, Nancy, cannot wait to hang out with “Leo Grande.”
“Aftershock” (Documentary) – Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee
What it’s about: Following the preventable deaths of their partners due to childbirth complications, two bereaved fathers galvanize activists, birth-workers, and physicians to reckon with one of the most pressing American crises of our time – the U.S. maternal health crisis.
Why we’re excited: “Aftershock” takes on an urgent, often overlooked facet of reproductive injustice: the way we care for women during and after childbirth, or don’t. Among wealthy countries, the United States has one of the highest maternal mortality rates. Black women are especially vulnerable, something Beyoncé and Serena Williams raised awareness about when they publicly opened up about their own pregnancy and childbirth complications.
By focusing on two people who lost their partners to the maternal health crisis — and their role in the fight for health care equity — Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee’s documentary highlights both the personal and political. Maternal health is a critical national issue, and it’s also one that, for many folks, hits close to home.
“Sirens” (Documentary) – Directed by Rita Baghdadi
What it’s about: On the outskirts of Beirut, Lilas and Shery, co-founders and guitarists of the Middle East’s first all-female metal band, wrestle with friendship, sexuality, and destruction in their pursuit of becoming thrash metal rock stars.
Why we’re excited: We’re suckers for women who rock. Like Bobbi Jo Hart’s 2021 doc “Fanny: The Right to Rock,” a tribute to the first band of women to release an LP with a major label, “Sirens” celebrates a trailblazing group of women musicians, Slave to Sirens. From director Rita Baghdadi, who was “determined to make a film that did not solely revolve around the bad things happening in Lebanon,” the film is set against the backdrop of the Lebanese revolution, setting the stage for Slave to Sirens’ origin story and rise to prominence.
“I want to challenge Western perceptions of what it’s like to be a young woman in the Middle East today,” Baghdadi told us in a Q&A. “And I want young women in the region to be able to see themselves on screen in a way they might never have before.” We’re looking forward to being introduced to Slave to Sirens — and enjoying their groundbreaking music.
“Alice” – Written and Directed by Krystin Ver Linden
What it’s about: When a woman in servitude in 1800s Georgia escapes the 55-acre confines of her captor, she discovers the shocking reality that exists beyond the treeline…it’s 1973. Inspired by true events.
Why we’re excited: Like everyone else on Twitter, we’re totally charmed by Keke Palmer as a host on the red carpet, and we’re eager to see the “Scream Queens” alumna channel all of her charisma into a leading role on the big screen. Writer-director Krystin Ver Linden, who is making her feature debut with “Alice,” described it as a “film of freedom and self-belief. One person can create an entire movement,” she emphasized in an upcoming interview with us. “‘Alice’ highlights the power of defining yourself on your own terms, not the labels put on you by others,” she added. The genre pic sounds like it packs a powerful message, and the chance to see Palmer star in her own film following a supporting turn in “Hustlers” and a guest spot on “Insecure” is reason enough for us to check “Alice” out.
“TikTok, Boom.” (Documentary) – Directed by Shalini Kantayya
What it’s about: With TikTok now crowned the world’s most downloaded app, these are the personal stories of a cultural phenomenon, told through an ensemble cast of Gen-Z natives, journalists, and experts alike. This film seeks to answer, “Why is an app, best known for people dancing, the target of so much controversy?”
Why we’re excited: We were big fans of Shalini Kantayya’s last doc, 2020’s “Coded Bias,” an examination of how human bias impacts facial recognition technology that managed to make complicated subject matter accessible and entertaining. “I want people to ask critical questions about so many of the technologies that we interact with every day,” the director told us. With “TikTok, Boom.,” she’ll continue to do just that. Over one billion people use TikTok every month.
We’re particularly looking forward to seeing Kantayya’s take on Donald Trump’s threats to ban the Chinese-owned app during his presidency. Was it all just political posturing or is there merit to the claim that the social media platform posed a threat to national security?
“Call Jane” – Directed by Phyllis Nagy; Written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi
What it’s about: Chicago, 1968: After having a life-saving secret abortion, a suburban housewife seeks to give women access to healthy and safe abortions through an underground collective of women known as “Jane.”
Why we’re excited: The Jane Collective gets the narrative and non-fiction treatment at Sundance this year. The narrative feature, “Call Jane,” boasts a cast that includes Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Mara, and Wunmi Mosaku and sees “Carol” screenwriter Phyllis Nagy in the director’s chair.
The fight for reproductive rights is as pressing as it’s been since Roe v. Wade, so “Call Jane” obviously has a particular resonance in 2022. But, in an interview with Nagy, she told us she set out “to make a film that’s provocative, politically urgent, and entertaining. A light touch is always the most serious of approaches,” she added. A political movie that’s not a complete downer is just what we need in these very hard times.
“The Janes” (Documentary) – Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes
What it’s about: In the spring of 1972, police raided an apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Seven women were arrested. The accused were part of a clandestine network. Using code names, blindfolds, and safe houses, they built an underground service for women seeking safe, affordable, illegal abortions. They called themselves JANE.
Why we’re excited: Sundance 2022’s other film about the Jane Collective hails from directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes who, between them, have previously helmed or produced the likes of “Citizen Koch,” “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code,” and “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” — non-fiction films that highlight critical social justice issues, both past and present. “The Janes” promises to do the same.
By centering the Jane Collective, a group of women who found a way to provide abortions when no else could or would, the documentary explores an important piece of American history and reminds us what a world without Roe v. Wade — or legal protections for reproductive rights in general — looks like.
“To the End” (Documentary) – Directed by Rachel Lears
What it’s about: Stopping the climate crisis is a question of political courage, and the clock is ticking. Over three years of turbulence and crisis, four remarkable young women of color fight for a Green New Deal, and ignite a historic shift in U.S. climate politics.
Why we’re excited: Rachel Lears’ first documentary featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “Knock Down the House,” traced an uphill battle (four women running for Congress for the first time) and an improbable victory (Ocasio-Cortez won!). Lears’ second doc featuring Ocasio-Cortez, “To the End,” traces another uphill battle (getting the U.S. government to implement serious, comprehensive climate policy, like, now). It’s doubtful “To the End” will have an improbable victory, but hope springs eternal.
In any case, we’re here for “To the End” because Lears is once again spotlighting a group of women taking on a seemingly insurmountable problem because who else will? They’re the ones they’ve been waiting for. Even if Ocasio-Cortez and fellow subjects Varshini Prakash, Alexandra Rojas, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright aren’t 100 percent successful in their mission, they are sure to inspire because they are women fighting for the world they want to live in.
“Am I OK?” – Directed by Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro; Written by Lauren Pomerantz
What it’s about: Lucy and Jane have been best friends for most of their lives and think they know everything there is to know about each other. But when Jane announces she’s moving to London, Lucy reveals a long-held secret. As Jane tries to help Lucy, their friendship is thrown into chaos.
Why we’re excited: “One Mississippi” collaborators — and real-life married couple — Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro re-team on “Am I OK?,” a film that the pair describe as being about “sexuality,” “female friendship,” and “what it means to embrace who you truly are a little later in life,” themes that we’re always eager to explore. In an interview with us, the pair explained, “It’s about making the decision to be your truest authentic self and then seeing how the pieces fall.”
“Am I OK?” marks leading lady Dakota Johnson’s follow-up to “The Lost Daughter,” one of our favorite woman-directed films of last year, another portrait of a complicated connection between women. You might recognize her co-lead, Sonoya Mizuno, from “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Annihilation,” or “La La Land.” We’re looking forward to seeing her get a lot more screen time and more to do in “Am I OK?”