The 12 lessons in love from the 2024 Sundance Film Festival

“Bad people aren’t as creative at being bad as good people are at being good.”

Artist Anya Stasenko offers this memorable — and, sadly, timely — statement in “Porcelain War,” directed by Slava Leontyev and Brendan Bellomo. The remarkable documentary, produced and co-written by Boulder-based filmmaker Paula DuPré Pesman, won the Sundance Grand Jury prize for U.S. documentary at the 40th Sundance Film Festival, which ended Sunday.

Life and art during wartime: A piece by Ukrainian artist-solder Slava Leontye and Anya Stasenko. (Provided by Slava Leontyev and Andrey Stefanov via the Sundance Institude)

Stasenko — along with Leontyev, her husband and artistic partner, and the couple’s dear friend Andrey Stefanov, all artists — are guides to this insiders’ grasp of art and love during warfare. The documentary mixes moments of natural beauty and art-making with the rending havoc of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine to moving if complex effect.

Complex because war films, even when they’re arguing the right side of history, can be disquieting to those privileged enough to wonder about war movies and propaganda. It’s a quandary I wrestled with during parts of “Porcelain War.” One of the film’s makers acknowledged that with grace but also rebuffed with hard-wrought acuity.

“Ukraine was a free country that was unjustly invaded,” Leontyev wrote in an email Tuesday. “Millions of Ukrainians had to flee their homes, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed. We captured the story of the people who have witnessed this, who are still experiencing it, and their perspective is their truth. They have no option but to fight back, and they deserve to have their feelings on the subject heard. They have the right to take pride in defending their home and the people they love. This war is a one-sided, senseless attack on people who want peace.”

In a few weeks, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will feature one of the strongest slates of major motion pictures in recent memory as it considers “Oppenheimer,” “Killers of the Flower Moon” and, yes, even “Barbie” for awards. Last year, films went big — and did well while doing so.

Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) and mom Anila (Kani Kusruti) in writer-director Shuchi Talati’s award-winning “Girls Will Be Girls.” (Provided by the Sundance Institute)

How apt, then, that as the premier champion of independent movies, Sundance brimmed with something different. Like “Porcelain War,” so many of the festival’s award-winners were in many ways love stories. No, not romances in the traditional sense (though there were those), but films that foregrounded the familial in ways often set against themes as grand as last year’s very fine behemoths. Be it war, addiction, unexpected death, even genocide, these films focused on love and in doing speak so eloquently to how we — yes, that collective, humane “we” — live and love, hurt and might survive.

(Note: “Porcelain War” will be showing at the Boulder International Film Festival in late February.)

“A New Kind of Wilderness”

What begins as a lovely, albeit demanding undertaking, a way for Maria and Nik to raise their four children in concert with the natural world is upended when Maria dies. Silje Evensmo Jacobsen’s documentary is a touching look at the grief of a spouse, the heartbreak of children and the necessity and challenges of continuing onward while honoring the ideals of the lost.

Sundance award: Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema Documentary

Will you be able to see it: For the time being, keep an eye on the festival circuit.

“A Real Pain”

Writer-director Jesse Eisenberg, right, and Kieran Culkin are Jewish cousins who travel to Poland on a heritage tour in Sundance screenplay winner “A Real Pain.” (Provided by the Sundance Institute)

In his sophomore outing as a writer-director, Jesse Eisenberg captures one of the great, if unsung, familial relationships: cousinhood. David (Eisenberg) and Benji Kaplan (Kieran Culkin) head to Poland for a heritage tour and to visit the childhood home of their deceased grandmother. There’s no shortage of comedy or pathos as the two explore their Jewish roots and tangled fondness (and resentments) in this aching, incisive dramatic comedy.

Sundance award: Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award

Will you be able to see It: Searchlight Pictures has it.

“Girls Will Be Girls”

During the post-screening Q&A, director Shukhi Talati described her frisky and frank coming-of-age gem as a love story between mother and daughter. Which is both spot-on and hilarious, given how much Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) holds her mother, Anila (Kani Kusruti), in contempt. The upright, first female prefect of her private school, Mira is turned upside down and her mind and other parts begin to wander when she and classmate Sri (a slyly charming Kesav Binoy Kiron) fall for each other.

Sundance awards: Audience Award, World Dramatic and special jury award for acting for Panigrahi

Will you be able to see it: For the time being, keep an eye on the festival circuit.

Keith Sweptson hugs five-year-old daughter Aubrey in the award-winning documentary “Daughters.” (Provided by the Sundance Institute)


It’s just one of those moments that invites the waterworks. For 10 weeks, the men sitting in chairs along a cement block, linoleum-floored corridor have been taking a prison course in fatherhood. Now their young daughters are about to walk into that corridor for a Date with Dad dance, sponsored by a non-profit organization called Girls for Change. The guys, looking oh-so-sharp in suits and ties, fidget and crane their necks trying to get a glimpse of their little girls. Given how seldom these men are allowed in-person visits with family, the fear of “will she recognize me?” hangs in the air. Director Angela Patton and Natalie Rae follow four of those girls as each grapples with her dad’s absence. The lessons that Aubrey, 4, Santana, 10, Ja’Ana, 11, and Raziah, 15, impart are as beautiful as they are heartbreaking.

Sundance awards: Audience Award and Festival Favorite Award

Will you be able to see it: Netflix picked it up.


Chris Wang (Izaac Wang) has a lot of growing up to do. And the notion that not all this maturing is likely to happen before the frenetic feature “Didi” concludes is one of the things that makes writer-director Sean Wang’s debut, set in Fremont, Calif., so authentic. Chris skateboards (sort of). He shoots skateboard video (sort of). He flirts (tentatively). And he lies (oh, how he lies) because he’s not comfortable in his skin — even less at ease than all the other teens itching to seem grown. Joan Chen gives a beautifully measured turn as Chris’ mom, a somewhat thwarted painter whose husband lives and works in Taiwan. What Chris doesn’t get about his mother’s love has so much to do with what he has yet to learn about himself.

Sundance awards: Audience Award, U.S. Dramatic, and special jury award for acting to the ensemble

Will you be able to see it: Focus Features picked it up.

Terrell (André Holland) and wife Aisha (Andra Day) in artist-director Titus Kaphar’s father-son reckoning “Exhibiting Forgiveness.” (Provided by the Sundance Institute)

“Exhibiting Forgiveness”

Artist Titus Kaphar could not have landed a more gifted actor to portray Terrell than the exquisitely nuanced André Holland. Holland brings warmth and fury to his performance as a successful painter who’s prone to panic attacks set off by fractured dreams from his childhood. As Terrell plans to move his mother (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) from his childhood neighborhood, Terrell’s addict father (James Earl Jelks) comes back into the picture. Andra Day portrays Terrell’s wife, Aisha, a singer-songwriter.

Will you be able to see it: For the time being, keep an eye on the festival circuit.

“In the Summers”

Each summer, Violeta and Eva land in the tiny airport of Las Cruces, N.M., to spend summertime with their father. Writer-director Alessandra Lacorazza Samudio’s intimate drama follows the two over a few visits with their dad. Vicente (Residente) can be a hot mess. He’s also super smart. A great ensemble brings to vivid life the story of two girls visiting their wounded — and, at times, wounding —  father.

Sundance awards: Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Dramatic, and Directing Award, U.S. Dramatic

Will you be able to see it: For the time being, keep an eye on the festival circuit.


“Sugarcane” subject, artist, father, survivor: Ed Archie NoiseCat. (Emily Kassie, provided by the Sundance Institute)

Directors Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie embark on a profound and painfully resonant journey as they focus on the residential schools in British Columbia where Indian children were sent after being taken from their parents — in particular, a Catholic Church-run institution near the Sugarcane Reserve. Among the children whose lives were upended was the director’s father, artist Ed Archie NoiseCat. Few films braid the personal, cultural and political as intricately and wisely as this documentary that reckons with generational wounds, institutional immorality and fathers and sons.

Sundance award: Grand Jury Prize, Directing, U.S. Documentary

Will you be able to see it: For the time being, keep an eye on the festival circuit.


The title character as a boy (Kevin Aguilar) in Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, “Sujo.” (Ximena Amann, via the Sundance Institute)

Four-year-old Sujo’s father adores him. But he is also a sicario for a cartel. When Sujo’s father meets an untimely but fully expected end, the child is also marked for death. Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero’s beautifully paced drama keeps us both anxious and hopeful for Sujo, as he makes his precarious way from toddler to young man.

Sundance award: Grand Jury Prize, World Dramatic

Will you be able to see it: For the time being, keep an eye on the festival circuit.


Writer-director Laura Chinn’s semi-autobiographical dramatic comedy finds a mom and daughter increasingly at odds as Max — Kristine’s son and teenager Doris’ brother — enters hospice. If that weren’t already a difficult situation, the film is set in 2005, as a fellow patient at the Suncoast facility has garnered national attention. Crowds line the driveway up to the hospice, holding placards protesting the right of Michael Schiavo to remove the feeding tube of his wife, Theresa. Laura Linney and Nico Parker give strong performances of a mom and child grieving so differently. Woody Harrelson plays a widower who befriends Doris but also shares his own strong feelings about life and right-to-die questions.

Sundance award: special jury prize for acting to Parker

Friends Will Ferrell and Harper Steele hit the road in “Will & Harper.” (Provided by the Sundance Institute)

Will you be able to see it: Limited theatrical opening Friday; available on Hulu on Feb. 9

“Will & Harper”

Even when a critic is on the ground in Park City, there are going to be movies she misses. This year’s The One That Got Away Award goes to the friendship story “Will & Harper.” Harper Steele and actor Will Farrell met on the set of “Saturday Night Live” and became good friends. Even so, Ferrell wasn’t aware that his friend had transitioned. This is their story of getting to know each other again told as a crowd-pleasing road trip.

Will you be able to see it: Wild standing ovations and more than a little star power suggest distribution is only a matter of time.

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