December is the heart of Oscar season, yet by the time we finally see who wins the trophies on March 2, we will have heard the nominees answer the same red-carpet questions and tell the same late-night television anecdotes — about process and weight loss and legacy, etc — that we’ll practically be able to write the winners’ acceptance speeches for them. It’s refreshing, then, that right in the middle of this circus will be the Sundance Film Festival.
Every January, in Park City, Utah, a fresh crop of movies is unveiled at independent film’s grandest showcase. What separates Sundance from other prestigious festivals, say Toronto or Cannes, is that it specializes in that your-life-will-never-be-the-same moment. From the day Steven Soderbergh screened sex, lies and videotape in 1989 to the standing ovation Ryan Coogler received earlier this year for Fruitvale Station, Sundance is the place where dreams come true. To be there when it happens, to see filmmakers and actors engaging with appreciative audiences who are watching their work for the first time, is one of the best things about the business. “I haven’t been in a movie before, so everything is so Entourage,” said Gabourey Sidibe, when Precious premiered at Sundance in 2009. “We’re walking up Main Street and everyone’s like, ‘You were so wonderful.’ ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see your movie.’ Oh my God. That is sooooo Entourage.”
How can you not love that?
And it’s not just the rags-to-riches stories that make Sundance such a special place. When talent comes to Sundance — be they no-names or Oscar-winners — their well-rehearsed pat answers simply haven’t taken shape yet. Sundance is the first time they’re meeting the press for their project and they aren’t always 100 percent prepared — which is a wonderful thing. Stay out of his own way, and a journalist might even enjoy a spontaneous, human conversation with some amazing artist who is just as excited to share what went into the process of creating their art. Sometimes, if the spirit moves them, they might have have an impromptu dance party, like Sidibe and her Precious co-stars did at the EW Studio.
The cast’s playful expressions of delight couldn’t have contrasted more from the film’s subject matter. Then titled Push: Based on the Novel By Sapphire, the story of an abused, illiterate Harlem teen (Sidibe), pregnant for the second time by her drug-addict father, rocked Sundance when it premiered there and went on to sweep that year’s awards. “There was a white man there, 60 years old, you wouldn’t think he’d relate to any of us,” said Paula Patton, who played a teacher who helps Precious. “He said, ‘I come to this festival all the time. I’ve seen maybe 75 films. This is the best one I’ve ever seen, and the only time I’ve cried in a movie.’”
Sidibe was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for her authentic performance, and Mo’Nique won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Precious’ abusive monster of a mother. “Sometimes, a movie has to take you down — and I mean down, really far — in order to lift you up,” wrote EW’s Owen Gleiberman at the time. “Push is one of those films that make you think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ but it’s a potent and moving experience, because by the end you feel you’ve witnessed nothing less than the birth of a soul.”
Perhaps because of its subject matter, Precious wasn’t one of those celebrated Sundance million-dollar acquisitions. It didn’t land a distributor until weeks after, when Lionsgate partnered with Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry to bring the film to theaters in November. The film eventually grossed $47.6 million and earned six Oscar nominations, and by that time — as Mo’Nique and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher accepted their awards — it felt like a victory for the people who’d been there at Sundance, too.