Hollywood Needs To See These Fresh Coming-Of-Age Debut Films

Each January, the Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up its 40th edition Sunday, programs a wide range of movies from filmmakers around the world, working in all kinds of languages, styles and genres — and widening moviegoers’ perspectives and experiences.

However, only a small handful of those films get bigger platforms beyond the festival: a major theatrical release, an awards campaign and/or famous names backing them. In yet another year that has underscored the fickle industry support for women, people of color and other underrepresented voices in film, it bears repeating that there’s no shortage of talent.

Several Sundance features that stood out this year could broadly be described as coming-of-age films. But that’s admittedly reductive, as each of the four highlighted below takes that classic genre and infuses it with something one of a kind. All four are impressive feature debuts from their writer-directors, telling deeply personal stories with distinctive points of view.

These films were among some of the Sundance selections made available online for both critics and general audiences during the festival last week. But they, and many other films at the festival, deserve the chance to find a wider audience in the months to come. 

As of now, severalof these movies have yet to receive distribution in the U.S. So here’s hoping someone snatches them up soon and gives them the care and attention they deserve.

Violeta (Dreya Renae Castillo), Eva (Luciana Quinonez) and Vicente (Residente) in
Violeta (Dreya Renae Castillo), Eva (Luciana Quinonez) and Vicente (Residente) in

Violeta (Dreya Renae Castillo), Eva (Luciana Quinonez) and Vicente (Residente) in "In the Summers."

“In the Summers”

The feature debut of Colombian American filmmaker Alessandra Lacorazza Samudio, “In the Summers” follows two sisters, Violeta and Eva, over a series of summers during their childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. Their parents are split up and they live with their mom in California. Each summer, they visit their dad, Vicente, in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

He lovingly teaches them how to cook, play pool and navigate using the stars. But he’s also prone to drinking heavily — and, on occasion, becoming violent. Over time, the girls’ relationship with him becomes more distant, and dealing with his volatility is sometimes more trouble than it’s worth. How do you acknowledge the pain of a parent who has wronged you while also recognizing they’re usually trying to do the very best they can with what they’ve got? 

Shot on location in Las Cruces, “In the Summers” has an undeniable sense of place and a lyrical style, with subtle shifts to show the passage of time. It’s also anchored by touchingly vulnerable performances by rapper Residente, making his acting debut as Vicente, as well as Sasha Calle and Lio Mehiel as young adult versions of Eva and Violeta, respectively.

The film won the festival’s Grand Jury prize for best U.S. dramatic film as well as its directing award. In awarding the film, the jury said: “A film like this can easily slip through the cracks, and for that reason we have chosen to shed light on this beautiful piece of cinema and we hope it finds the audience it so well deserves.”

Chris (Izaac Wang) in “Dìdi (弟弟).”
Chris (Izaac Wang) in “Dìdi (弟弟).”

Chris (Izaac Wang) in “Dìdi (弟弟).”

“Dìdi (弟弟)”

Wondering what we owe to our parents is also central to Taiwanese American director Sean Wang’s semi-autobiographical feature “Dìdi (弟弟).” Set in the summer of 2008 (with details that are painfully familiar to those of us who grew up in the early 2000s), protagonist Chris (Izaac Wang) is about to start high school. He’s figuring out teenage crushes, hobbies, how to hang out with the cool kids and all the facets of the painful process of searching for your identity as an angsty teen.

In addition to its wonderfully specific details, the film also features a standout performance from the great Joan Chen as Chris’ mom. While dealing with her absentee husband and a demanding mother-in-law, she’s juggling raising Chris and sending his older sister off to college — all while yearning to have an identity of her own.

At Sundance, “Dìdi (弟弟)” received a Special Jury Award for its ensemble cast, with the jury praising the “beautiful symphony” of actors “that helped to give this film its sense of vibrancy and helped to bring to life the joys and pains of growing up.” It also won an audience award, voted on by the public. It’s easy to see why audiences gravitated toward this heartwarming debut feature from Wang, who also recently got an Oscar nomination for his Disney+ short, “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó.”

Update: “Dìdi (弟弟)” has now been acquired by Focus Features for release later this year.

Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) and Anila (Kani Kusruti) in
Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) and Anila (Kani Kusruti) in

Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) and Anila (Kani Kusruti) in "Girls Will Be Girls."

“Girls Will Be Girls”

The social pressures of high school and both loving and hating our parents are similarly a throughline in “Girls Will Be Girls,” the assured debut feature from Indian director Shuchi Talati. It chronicles protagonist Mira (Preeti Panigrahi, who received a Special Jury Award for her performance) throughout her senior year of high school at a boarding school in India. As the head of her class — the first time the school has chosen a woman — she’s charged with enforcing strict rules and hierarchies that discourage young women from having agency. 

Meanwhile, she has a crush on classmate Sri (Kesav Binoy Kiron). Her mom, Anila (Kani Kusruti), allows the two to frequently meet at their house, trying to be the “cool mom.” But as the pair’s relationship deepens, Anila keeps a watchful eye on them, ratcheting up the tension between mother and daughter. Through these complicated relationships and a juicy setting, Talati weaves together a compelling tale about teenage desires and patriarchal structures.

Lin Muran as Tu Wei (center), and Zu Feng (left) and Guo Ke-Yu (right) as his parents in “Brief History of a Family.”
Lin Muran as Tu Wei (center), and Zu Feng (left) and Guo Ke-Yu (right) as his parents in “Brief History of a Family.”

Lin Muran as Tu Wei (center), and Zu Feng (left) and Guo Ke-Yu (right) as his parents in “Brief History of a Family.”

“Brief History of a Family”

Like Talati, Chinese director Jianjie Lin deftly melds the personal with the global in “Brief History of a Family.” Lin’s gripping drama follows the antagonistic dynamic between high schooler Yan Shuo and his more affluent classmate, Tu Wei. Shuo’s mom died when he was young and his father is an alcoholic. So he craves the stable family unit of Wei and his parents, who live comfortably in a spacious, high-rise apartment. Shuo gradually ingratiates himself with Wei’s parents, who begin to treat him like their own son — fueling Wei’s jealousy and rage.

Lin’s confident debut uses this twisty coming-of-age meets psychological thriller to explore ideas around the complex nature of the Chinese middle class and their newfound upward mobility, as well as the long-term effects of China’s one-child policy. Narratively, the film continually keeps viewers guessing and dials up the tension between the two boys throughout, like a pressure cooker about to burst. It’s unsettling — in the best of ways.