Sundance 2021 Preview: 10 Female-Directed Films To Watch – Rachel West reports

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The Sundance Film Festival is continuing to be more inclusive when it comes to filmmakers. After last year’s programming slate saw 46 percent of films directed by women — including break-out hits Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Miss Juneteenth, and The 40-Year-Old Version — the 2021 edition of Sundance has reached parity among filmmakers with 50 percent or 69 of the 139 projects helmed by one or more women.

With half the festival’s films directed by women, there are several projects to keep on your radar when the virtual festival begins on January 28.

Among the female-helmed films earning buzz is the opening night film CODA. Siân Heder, whose directorial feature debut Tallulah played the festival in 2016, returns to the U.S. Dramatic Competition with her latest effort. CODA – or Child Of Deaf Adults – focuses on young teen Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing person in her deaf family. When her family’s fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and staying to support her family’s interests.

Heder cast Marlee Matlin in the role of Ruby’s mother and with the help of the Oscar-winning actress, brought a community of deaf actors to the project. Matlin used her position as a go-between to help communicate Heder’s direction in American Sign Language with the non-hearing performers.

One of the themes of the 2021 festival is actresses stepping behind the camera for the first time. Among notable women directing their first feature are Rebecca Hall with Passing, Zoe Lister-Jones’ How It Ends and Robin Wright’s Land.

Wright turns the camera on herself in Land as she plays Edee, a woman who retreats from society following an undisclosed tragedy in her life. Filmed in the picturesque Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Land is hardly a vanity project for the veteran actress as she commands the screen in long solitary stretches of the film.

Jones, too, stars in her directorial debut How It Ends about a woman’s journey through Los Angeles on her way to make it to one final party before the world ends. Encountering eclectic characters along the way, the film also features performances by Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, and Helen Hunt.

For her directorial debut, Hall remains behind-the-camera to adapt Nella Larson’s 1920s Harlem Renaissance novella about two women (Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson) who can “pass” for white. With each woman choosing to live on either side of the racial divide, Hall’s film explores racial, cultural and gender identities, drawing on her own family lineage as the daughter of bi-racial opera singer Maria Louise Ewing. “I came across [Passing] at a time when I was trying to reckon creatively with some of my personal family history, and the mystery surrounding my bi-racial grandfather on my American mother’s side. In part, making this film is an exploration of that history, to which I’ve never really had access,” she previously told The Playlist about the project.

Another story that touches on identity is the documentary feature Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It. Director Mariem Pérez Riera shines the spotlight on barrier-breaking star and EGOT-winner Rita Moreno and her relentless battle against racism as she paved the way for Hispanic-American performers, defying typecasting into one-dimensional racist stereotypes over the course of her lengthy career.

Another non-fiction film challenging stereotypes is Writing With Fire which focusses on the women who break cultural traditions to bring the headlines to the community through India’s only newspaper run by Dalit women of the country’s lowest or “untouchable” caste. Co-directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, the doc follows Chief Reporter Meera and her team of journalists as they redefine gender norms in their community and within their own homes.

Also earning steady word-of-mouth following the recent release of its trailer is the LGBTQ+ romance The World To Come. Set in the mid-19th century on the American Frontier, Mona Fastvold directs a story of isolation and hardship as told through two neighboring couples. Katherine Waterston stars as Abigail, a grieving wife who finds compassion, friendship and intimacy with the arrival of her new neighbor, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby).

As part of the Animation Spotlight, director and screenwriter Alisi Telengut’s short film The Fourfold is a stunning hand-crafted animated look at the Indigenous animistic beliefs and rituals of Mongolia and Siberia. Already playing the festival circuit in 2020, the award-winning short offers a worldview set on reclaiming the earth and nature for the health of the planet against rapid environmental change.

Channelling the current state of the world amid the coronavirus pandemic is The Pink Cloud by Brazilian writer/director Iuli Gerbase. When a mysterious and toxic pink cloud descends over the city, Giovana (Renata de Lélis) finds herself stuck in an apartment with Yago (Eduardo Mendonça), a man she just met. As forced lockdown extends over the years and Giovana and Yago reinvent themselves as a couple, each with a different outlook on their situation.

Finally, as part of the Midnight selection of horror features comes Censor, sure to please film fans. Prano Bailey-Bond directs the meta flick about Enid (Niamh Algar), a film censor who discovers an uncanny horror movie that seems to contain the answers to her sister’s disappearance. Unravelling the puzzle behind the film and its mysterious director, the lines between reality and fiction being to blur.

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival takes place virtually from January 28 through February 3, with screenings accessible to U.S. viewers. View the complete schedule and purchase tickets online.

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Rachel West

Based in Toronto, Rachel is a Senior Film Critic at She has interviewed everyone from Michael Fassbender to Miss Piggy and has reported live from TIFF, the SAG Awards, Comic-Con, and the Golden Globes, among other events, and has contributed film writing and content to outlets including ET Canada, Telefilm, Global News, The National Post, Cineplex Magazine, and Letterboxd, among others. She is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. Find her on Twitter: @rachel_is_here