From eighth-grade girls to skateboarding showboats to struggling gay teenagers, these actors and their roles wowed audiences at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival — and promise to keep audiences buzzing all year.
Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade)
In Eighth Grade — Bo Burnham’s empathetic look at a shy girl during her last week in middle school — Elsie Fisher has the tricky task of becoming more than just an avatar for our collective adolescence. Fisher plays 13-year-old Kayla with such bare vulnerability that she imbues the whole film with a gripping emotional suspense. Kayla spends large stretches of the movie completely trapped in herself. It can be so easy when playing quiet, observant characters to make them feel like blank slates who lack personalities. Kayla, however, feels like a fully realized person — the audience gets a full sense of who she is, even when Kayla herself is having a hard time actually showing that to the rest of the world. The credit largely rests with the way Fisher navigates this film: Her face and body language are tools she wields for an arresting experience. —Alanna Bennett
Taylor Jewell / AP
Forrest Goodluck (The Miseducation of Cameron Post)
Given that it’s set in a school attempting to emotionally browbeat the queerness out of a bunch of queer teens, you’d think The Miseducation of Cameron Post — which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year — wouldn’t manage to be as funny or as warm as it is. That it pulls off its tricky tonal position is in part because of deft steering by director Desiree Akhavan — but it also hinges on the charisma of the three teenage friends at the story’s center. The least well-known actor in that trio is Forrest Goodluck, whose previous work includes The Revenant. He plays Adam Red Eagle, and he brings to the role a humor, warmth, and incisiveness that make you want to see him in about a thousand more things right this second. His work in this role transports you back to the best parts of high school, even as Miseducation’s plot centers on such dark oppression. That’s a feat — and one Goodluck excels at. —A.B.
Tommaso Boddi / Getty Images
Isabelle Nélisse (The Tale)
It’s pretty impossible to talk about what Isabelle Nélisse does in The Tale without causing great alarm, but here we go: She plays the 13-year-old version of the film’s writer-director, Jennifer Fox, who as an adult (and played by Laura Dern) begins to reconcile her memories of the relationship — first emotional, then sexual — she had when she was 13, with her 40-year-old coach Bill (Jason Ritter). Fox went to enormous lengths to insure Nélisse’s physical and psychological safety during filming, including an adult body double for any scenes of physical contact. But Nélisse’s ability to capture the complicated emotions stirring inside Fox means that even her character’s dialogue scenes with Bill are harrowing to watch. The fact that she filmed those scenes when she was just 11 — to drive home just how young Fox looked at the time — makes her accomplishment that much more astonishing. —Adam B. Vary
Taylor Jewell / AP
Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline)
Some people just look lit up from within on screen. That’s the case for newcomer Helena Howard in her debut in Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, playing a teenager whose mental illness and ability to commit herself entirely to acting roles seem, in complicated ways, to be related. As Madeline, Howard is as magnetic as she is menacing — sometimes she comes across as a girl who seems like she should be sheltered, and sometimes she’s an erratic presence testing out her sexuality or lashing out in violence. The triumphant film doesn’t just rest entirely on Howard’s masterful performance, it’s built on her improvisations with the rest of the cast, making her not just the star but a creative force to be reckoned with. —Alison Willmore
Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images
Rafael Casal (Blindspotting)
The biggest standout scene in Blindspotting — the one that everyone argued about after its Sundance premiere — comes when Collin (Daveed Diggs) breaks into a passionate, stream-of-consciousness rap about the bone-deep fears he has to harbor every time he encounters a cop. It’s one of those you-either-go-with-this-or-you-don’t movie moments, and I totally went with it for one big reason: Rafael Casal’s performance in the scene as Collin’s lifelong best buddy, Miles. Casal cowrote Blindspotting with Diggs, and he’s well known in the world of performance poetry. But he really announces himself in this film as a talented and soulful actor, playing Miles with the kind of galvanizing charisma you’d expect from the lovable fuckup BFF. In that climactic rap scene with Diggs, however, Casal says nothing, drawing instead from a well of deep feeling to convey Miles’ fear and awe at watching his friend race at the edge of his own sanity. The film simply would not work without him. —A.B.V.
Taylor Jewell / AP
Kayli Carter (Private Life)
On paper, Kayli Carter’s role in Private Life risks becoming an irritating manic pixie dream millennial stereotype: As Sadie, she’s a rudderless twentysomething college dropout who’s always talking about not being taken seriously as an artist and decides almost on a whim to donate her eggs to her desperate-to-start-a-family step-aunt and uncle (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti). But Carter (Netflix’s Godless) is so darn winning that we can’t help but fall for Sadie’s moony earnestness, especially as Carter lets us understand the character’s quiet, desperate need for purpose. It’s such a tightrope walk for an actor, getting us to see a person who still doesn’t know who she is herself as a fully realized character, but Carter pulls it off wonderfully. —A.B.V.
Taylor Jewell / AP
Nina Moran (Skate Kitchen)
Skate Kitchen takes its title from a real community of female skaters in New York City, and although it tracks the coming of age of a Long Island girl (Rachelle Vinberg) who joins them, director Crystal Moselle (The Wolfpack) treats her cast of almost entirely first-time actors as an ensemble. So it feels just a little wrong to single anyone out from the delightful group of young women. But, oh well: Nina Moran, as the ball-capped lesbian Kurt, immediately stands out, both as a character as unabashed about her sexuality as her abilities on a skateboard, and as an actor capable of revealing the currents of rage that bubble underneath Kurt’s happy-go-lucky temperament. —A.B.V.
Sonia Recchia / Getty Images
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie (Leave No Trace)
Filmmaker Debra Granik has an eye for actors. Her 2004 debut, Down to the Bone, served as a breakthrough for lead Vera Farmiga, who’d acted in film and TV before but had never gotten a chance to show her talents like she did as a mother of two trying to hide a drug addiction. Her 2010 Winter’s Bone showed the world what Jennifer Lawrence, as a tough Ozark teen, could do, and was an essential step to Lawrence’s current stardom. So it really needn’t be said that the young lead of her new film, father-daughter drama Leave No Trace, is one to watch. But let’s go ahead and say it: New Zealander teenager Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie doesn’t just hold her own against Ben Foster in this film about a family of two who’ve been living in the Oregon wilderness. She quietly becomes the heart of the film, a wise-beyond-her-years young woman who comes to understand the difficulty her PTSD-stricken father has with living in society, but also begins to wonder if she’s willing to continue accompanying him in his off-the-grid existence. —A.W.
Taylor Jewell / AP