The usual Sundance rhythm: filmmakers, journalists, movie bizzers, and film lovers descend on Utah each January, standing in lines and trudging through snow to see ten, twenty, even thirty movies, which then find their way to the rest of the world via theaters, streaming platforms, PBS, or cable. The 2021 Sundance rhythm: filmmaker, journalists, movie bizzers, and film lovers descend on their laptops and smart TVs, just like any other day of this pandemic.
I’ve been attending Sundance off and on since 1992, which means I missed Richard Linklater’s Slacker by one year, but watched Reservoir Dogs in a tiny strip-mall theater seated next to a straight-from-the-airport John Cusack. The festival is technically work, but it’s fun, and for all the growth and glitz and parties and free swag and movie stars of those past three decades, it remains a celebration of independent cinema that’s steadfastly about the art.
“[Sundance is] essential to the infrastructure for independent film in the U.S.,” says Holly Herrick, the head of film and creative media for the Austin Film Society. That’s because of both the Sundance Film Festival itself, which introduces movies to a bigger audience, and the many things its parent Sundance Institute does year-round to help filmmakers develop artistically and economically.
In Texas, the Austin Film Society plays a similar role. The Linklater-founded organization was involved in the funding or creative development (or both) of several of the Texas films playing Sundance 2021. And now, because of COVID-19, AFS has become an official part of Sundance. While the bulk of the festival is being held online, Sundance has also teamed up with local theaters and film societies to sponsor a series of (mostly outdoor) satellite screenings around the country, with Austin, Dallas, and Houston among the 28 cities in the mix.
This pivot allows the festival to be more inclusive, both geographically and demographically. You don’t need a plane ticket, Park City condo, or expensive pass to go. To help narrow down the massive schedule, we’ve found the films and theaters that tell Texas stories. Read on for how and where to see Texas-related Sundance films with or without leaving home.
Screenings: Dallas, January 31; online, January 31 and February 2
Though it’s set in Arizona, this elegiac horse track film was cowritten and directed by Austin resident Clint Bentley, and cowritten and produced by Fort Worth’s Greg Kwedar. It’s a showcase for the captivating Mexican American actor Clifton Collins Jr. (Westworld, Veronica Mars), with real-life racing folks in nearly all of the supporting roles.
Bentley and Kwedar previously made the 2016 border drama Transpecos, which won the SXSW Film Festival Audience Award. On February 2 they will also discuss the film, as well as the North Texas filmmaking community, with Toby Halbrooks (who is one third of the collective Sailor Bear with David Lowery and James M. Johnston) and the Dallas International Film Festival’s James Faust.
Screenings: Austin, January 31; Dallas, January 31; online, January 31 and February 2
Writer/director and sometimes actress (Key & Peele, Emily in Paris) Carlson Young, a Fort Worth native, makes her feature debut with this film based on her own Sundance short from 2018. In the trippy horror film, Young plays a woman grappling with childhood trauma.
“It looks like something that people will be talking about a lot this year,” says the Texas Theatre’s Barak Epstein. “An Alice in Wonderland, David Lynch–world kind of movie. I’m really excited about it.”
Screenings: Austin, January 31; online, January 31 and February 2
Maisie Crow’s documentary tracks the “criminal justice club” at El Paso’s Horizon High School, where mostly Mexican American students participate in simulated drug raids and active shooter situations while considering careers in border patrol or other law enforcement. It may be simplistic to say that this could be another Boys State—another timely Texas film about a unique extracurricular program. But Boys State won the Sundance 2020 Grand Jury Prize (and is considered an Oscar contender for Best Documentary), so why not?
Years in the making, the film has lots of Austin pedigree as well. Crow, the Marfa-based editor of the Big Bend Sentinel and Presidio International, met producer Hillary Pierce at the Austin Film Society’s “doc intensive” lab, and Adrian Quesada (Black Pumas, Grupo Fantasma) did the score. “It went through multiple AFS programs,” says Holly Herrick. “So just to be able to be a part of their Sundance launch is exciting.”
Screenings: Dallas, January 31; online, January 31 and February 2
A second Texas teenage documentary, Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s film tells the verité story of a summer in the life of three girls in an unnamed military town “where there’s little to do but party—and where liquor, drugs, and guns are standard recreational accessories.” The directors originally met their subjects by chance, in a Stripes parking lot at 2:30 in the morning.
Screenings: online, January 30 and February 1
The dance and choreography legend founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York in 1958. But he was born in Rogers, grew up in Navasota, and was unquestionably shaped by the poverty and racism of Depression-era small-town Texas, as well as the bars, churches, and music of its Black community. Jamila Wignot’s documentary is “an immersive portrait told in Ailey’s own words,” built around the making of Lazarus, an original ballet inspired by his life from Ailey company hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris.
Screenings: Houston, January 31
Miss Juneteenth premiered at Sundance 2020, then lost its chance at other festivals and widespread distribution as a result of COVID-19. This year, it’s on the Sundance schedule once again. Coproduced by the Sailor Bear team, and recently nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, Miss Juneteenth ties together three Texas cities in its story of Fort Worth’s scholarship beauty pageant and the lives it touches. Director Channing Godfrey Peoples is from the Fort Worth area, has been an Austin Film Society fellow, and will now bring the film to Houston for a pop-up drive-in screening outside the DeLuxe Theater in the Fifth Ward.
“This is a singular film from a singular talent pool and reps for Black Texas and Texas more broadly on a whole other unprecedented level,” says Houston Cinema Arts Society artistic director Jessica Green. HCAS and AFS are also presenting an online panel with Peoples and Richard Linklater, thirty years after Linklater made his own Sundance debut with Slacker.
How and Where to Watch
Most passes to Sundance proper are sold out, but depending on the day and the film, moviegoers can still score a single-screening ticket ($15). Even digitally, each screening still has limited capacity, both for bandwidth reasons and because each film’s commercial future is still undetermined.
The online premieres, which begin January 28, will still offer attendees the frisson of being one of the first people to see a movie for the first time, as well as an interactive chat with fellow moviegoers and post-screening Q&As with filmmakers, actors, and documentary subjects. Add your own standing ovation.
If you can’t get a ticket for a premiere screening, each film also gets a 24-hour on-demand window two days later. Capacity is also limited for those, with more films more likely to sell out as word-of-mouth picks up. Additional tickets may become available over the course of the festival.
Don’t spend too much time worrying about seeing films that will be easy to see elsewhere later in the year (for example, the much-anticipated Judas and the Black Messiah, about Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, comes to HBO Max on February 12).
Instead, dig deep and go niche with experimental films, international films, and the shorts programs. Personally, I also find the documentaries to be more consistently reliable and rewarding than the fiction films.
The Austin Film Society Drive-In, 10621 Pioneer Farms Drive
Houston Cinema Arts Society, Moonstruck Drive-In, 100 Bringhurst
With the exception of Miss Juneteenth, the Houston Cinema Arts program isn’t showing any of the Texas films listed above. Instead, Sundance and HCAS have fashioned a program led by female, Black, and Hawaiian directors that “reflects Houston, America’s most diverse city, back at itself,” says Jessica Green. “This family of films explores our distinct and interconnected histories and experiences, at a key historical moment—one that demands engaged and powerful art.”
The Texas Theatre, 231 W. Jefferson Boulevard
If you feel ready for some indoor cinema, Dallas is the place to be. The indoor auditorium will operate at 16 percent capacity, with one hundred people in a 625-seat room, and boasts upgraded air filtration and circulation systems as well as the CinemaSafe protocols developed by epidemiologists. If you prefer to stay in the air bubble of your own vehicle, opening and closing night screenings are in the parking lot, a.k.a. the Texas Theatre Sunset Drive-In.