Produced by Oakland director Ryan Coogler, Judas and the Black Messiah is the story of an FBI informant tasked with keeping tabs on the charismatic Black Panther leader Chairman Fred Hampton. The movie makes its virtual world premiere at Sundance Film Festival on February 1st. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Local talent shines in the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival

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There's no doubt that our arts world has become smaller in the last year, but online and hybrid events are certainly having their day in the sun. Who would have imagined we'd have the Sundance Film Festival available on our doorstep? This has to be up there with the best pandemic-related news we've heard all year.

From January 28th to February 3rd, for the first time in its more than 20 years, the Sundance Film Festival goes virtual—and national —with screenings and events in 30 cities. It's fitting that the Roxie—one of the oldest movie theaters in the country—is a chosen official partner, and will bring a selection of the program to San Francisco's Fort Mason in partnership with the Flix drive-in team.


"The Roxie is honored to have been designated as the California State Satellite Screen for Sundance 2021, and thrilled that we will be presenting 12 festival features at Fort Mason Flix drive-in looking out onto the San Francisco Bay," Rick Norris, Roxie Programming Department, told SF/Arts.

Before you go in search of drive-in tickets, the bad news is the first batch sold out almost immediately, the not-so-bad-news is they will be releasing more tickets on January 25th, and the better news is that a lot of these films are available for streaming through the Sundance website, with some already lined up for Bay Area releases over the next month or so.

Roxie/Fort Mason Flix tickets are $49 per car, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting the Roxie.

Films with Bay Area connections feature strongly in this year's lineup, with a handful in the 15 or so world premieres. Here's what to watch.

'First Date'

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Directing duo Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp's First Date is a dark, coming-of-age teen romance that tells the story of a date night with unexpected results and uninvited guests including a criminal gang, a pair of cops, and even a cat lady. A whole heaping of excitement and car chase thrills in a trusty '65 Chrysler.


All the filmmakers and producers are from Sacramento or the Bay Area. "There's no reason not to make it homespun," says co-director Darren Knapp of this first feature film. "It was shot in Valley Springs, and almost the entire cast and crew consists of individuals from the greater Sacramento and Valley Springs regions. We knew our local area was full of talent, so why not highlight them? We both felt that screen presence and chemistry amounted to more than an IMDB star rating. Let's give everyone their shot!"

January 31, February 2 Sundance Streaming
February 1 Roxie/Fort Mason Flix

'​Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It'

(West Side Story copyright 1961, MetroGoldwynmayer Studios Inc.)

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It chronicles the life and work of the Tony, Oscar, Grammy and Emmy award winner Moreno who, throughout her 70-year career, has acted, danced and sang her way into the spotlight, all the time avoiding being pigeonholed and stereotyped thus paving the way for future Hispanic-American performers.

Director and fellow Puerto Rican, Mariem Pérez Riera considers Moreno "a great personality with vast knowledge; she's a woman of great conversations, very happy and very knowledgeable about a woman's place in the United States, and in Hollywood where she was sexually harassed and faced prejudice for being Latina and female."

Moreno is among the guests taking part in Sundance's virtual "Cinema Cafe" on Saturday, January 30.

January 29 Roxie/Fort Mason Flix; January 29, 31 Sundance Streaming

'Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir'

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | KPJR Films)

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir is the final film directed by James Redford (recently deceased son of Robert) and is an Official Selection of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The biopic takes us on the life journey of Amy Tan, the Chinese-American literary great and author of "The Joy Luck Club," whose 1989 novel about the relationships between Chinese-American women and their Chinese immigrant mothers set in San Francisco, put her on the map. The work was adapted into a play and a film directed by Wayne Wang in 1993.

Born to Chinese immigrant parents in the 1950s, Tan takes us through episodes in both her childhood and adult life that reflect on matters of immigrant representation and multigenerational trauma, as well as her own debilitating health issues and her mother's suicidal tendencies associated with the ancient Chinese tradition of concubinage.

February 2 Roxie/Fort Mason Flix / February 2, 3 Sundance Streaming

'Homeroom' and 'Try Harder!'

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Two Bay Area high schools are featured in documentaries at this year's festival, both examining the pressures of college applications and effects of senior student anxiety and stress. Homeroom, directed by Peter Nicks, was started in 2019 with the intention of observing students trying to navigate the urban educational process at Oakland High School. Originally focused on students' challenges around test scores and college admissions, the film took a sharp turn as the 2019-2020 school year saw the dramatic effects of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement on the high schoolers' lives. The result is a revealing coming-of-age story that taps into the collective experience of a nation undergoing dramatic change.

January 29, 31 Sundance Streaming


Meanwhile, across the Bay students at Lowell High School take center stage in director Debbie Lum's documentary Try Harder! Seniors at one of the most competitive, largely Asian American public high schools in the country push the already high bar of achievement to extremes in the effort to stand out and covet placements at the country's top colleges.

As part of the Festival Village's Talks & Events, filmmaker Debbie Lum, Lowell students and experts in the field explore the intersection of education and mental health and anxiety. Sunday, January 31 at 2pm.

January 30, February 1 Sundance Streaming / February 2 Roxie/Fort Mason Flix

'Bring Your Own Brigade'

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

While the heat is turned up for Bay Area students, so too seasonal wildfires continue to rage in California. Bring Your Own Brigade is filmmaker Lucy Walker's take on the topic as she turns the lens on communities affected and the losses suffered in recent fires. Following the devastation of the 2018 fire season's Camp Fire that took out the town of Paradise, and the Woolsey that raged through Malibu, the documentary examines the effects of climate change, history of suppression policies, complexities of preventative measures and the influence of corporate interests. As the threat continues and increases year after year, Walker's film looks at ways to balance development and nature and explores what it will take to restore this delicate equilibrium.

January 29, 31 Sundance Streaming

Robin Wright's 'Land'

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

In her directorial debut, Robin Wright also stars in her adaptation of the screenplay Land, a dramatic account of a woman's search for meaning and renewal in the aftermath of a near-death experience in the majestic Rockies' wilderness. Sundance organizers describe the film as "…a quiet yet masterful journey into the complex desire for solitude as a woman searches for meaning in the vast and harsh American wilderness."

Robin Wright will be taking part in Sundance's virtual "Cinema Cafe" on January 31. The film is set for general release February 12.

January 31, February 2 Sundance Streaming

Ryan Coogler's 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Another local talent, Oakland-based Ryan Coogler (a fellow Mahershala Ali St. Mary's College alum), is one of the producers of Judas and the Black Messiah. The story is of FBI informant William O'Neal who infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton, played by the wonderful Daniel Kaluuya. The movie will have its virtual world premiere at the festival and will be released by Warner Brothers in theaters on February 12 and also be available starting then on HBO Max for a limited time.

February 1, 3 - Sundance Streaming


The best way to figure out how to navigate online options for this year's festival is to check out our very own Boots Riley's walk-through video here on the Sundance website. The Oakland film director (Sorry to Bother You) rapper, and community activist gives a practical and highly entertaining on "how to fest." Check it out at festival.sundance.org.


This article was written by Catherine Barry for SF/Arts Monthly.

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