Sundance 2015: Who Is Going to Break Out At The Year’s First Big Festival?

By  · Published on January 22nd, 2015


If you’re attending the Sundance Film Festival (or just paying attention to excellent coverage of the festival, much like you would find right here at Film School Rejects, cough cough), you’re most likely looking for new projects, people, and productions to get excited about. Sundance may (somewhat bizarrely, when you really think about it) take place in the dead of winter in a tiny town mostly dedicated to ski tourism, but that early jump on the festival year allows the fest to set the tone for the rest of the year. This is the place you come to when you want to see something new, and this year looks poised to deliver that, in spades.

Sundance has often played home to the breakout roles of big stars (hello, Jennifer Lawrence), and although finding the next big talent is mostly a guessing game, fingers-crossing adventure, we’ve got some idea as to who just might emerge from ten days at Park City a bonafide star. Take a look:

Christopher Abbott, James White

Abbott has been at Sundance before, thanks to turns in features like the lauded Martha Marcy May Marlene and the underappreciated Hello I Must Be Going, but James White marks (what could be, and hey, these are all “could-bes”) his big breakout role. Finding and figuring out what’s going to be Sundance’s “next big discovery” – think Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Obvious Child, and Fruitvale — often boils down to buzz and chatter and guesswork and stumbling into random screenings. But it also requires keeping your ears out early, and James White is a film that has consistently popped up in pre-festival conversations (the last time I heard this much buzz about a Sundance film, it was Beasts, just saying.)

Maika Monroe, It Follows

It Follows has already played at a number of festivals already, but that only means it’s coming to Sundance with an active fanbase. And, man, does this film deserve an active fanbase. Filmmaker David Robert Mitchell knows how to effectively bring the look and feel of teenage life to the big screen – if you haven’t yet seen his The Myth of the American Sleepover, you owe it to yourself to check it out as soon as possible – and his casting of Monroe as his own unique spin on the “final girl” trope only adds to the overall atmosphere (creepy) and quality (excellent) of his take on teen sex gone wild (really wild).

Sarah Silverman, I Smile Back

Yes, you’ve heard of Sarah Silverman, but director Adam Salky’s I Smile Back introduces her to a brand new world: drama. Salky’s film casts Silverman as a depressed suburban wife and mother who makes the worst decisions possible at seemingly every turn – drugs, men, you name it – until she’s forced to finally change herself (literally, for good). If Silverman can pull this one off, the funny lady will have basically created an entirely new career path for herself, or at least a brand new range to explore.

Cobie Smulders, Unexpected and Results

Same deal with Smulders who, yes, you totally know (she does star in one of the biggest movie franchises in the world, after all), but who is tackling new material with a pair of very different Sundance films. If breaking out at Sundance means showing off your range and changing the public perception of what you can do as a performer, Smulders has this one on a lock. As a sardonic personal trainer in Andrew Bujalski’s Results, Smulders is in familiar territory, but the film should allow her the chance to explore her abilities as a leading lady. Things are significantly heavier in Kris Swanberg’s dramedy Unexpected, where Smulders stars as an inner city teacher who discovers (unexpectedly!) that she’s pregnant, just as one of her students struggles with a similar situation. Bonding, we assume, ensues.

Margot Robbie, Z for Zachariah

Robbie is poised to break out soon anyway, thanks to turns in big features like Focus and Tarzan and her upcoming role in Suicide Squad, but Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah looks like the sort of film that can do everything a good breakout role should do: show off range, allow audiences to see a performer in an unexpected genre, and establish a star as someone capable of leading their own feature. Based on Robert C. O’Brien’s post-apocalyptic novel of the same name, Robbie stars alongside Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a true three-hander. Who will come out of it alive? Who will come out of it a (bigger) star?

Lola Kirke, Mistress America

Girls fans, there’s another Kirke sister to love. Lola has popped up on the big screen before – she was the best part about last year’s Free The Nipple, and she even appeared in Gone Girl – and she’s consistently exhibited a fresh, flinty charisma that lights up any project. I’m half in love with her already. Casting her alongside Greta Gerwig in a Noah Baumbach film is the indie movie equivalent of me screaming, “take my money! take my heart!” and I can’t wait to see what these three do together.

Anders Holm, Unexpected

Holm’s comedic fearlessness – what up, Top Five? – has already set him apart from the upcoming generation of comics but, like co-star Smulders, he appears to be going for a smidge more drama in Unexpected. Holm’s comedy career is going great guns, but if manages to show off some dramatic sensibilities in the new film, this up-and-comer just might start snagging still more roles.

Related Topics: