Peter Travers on Sundance 2015's New Stars

Youth, raunch, film nerds and big sales for quirky indies bring the heat to the wintry Utah film festival

Bel Powley from 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl' and Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Shameik Moore from 'Dope.' Credit: Victoria Will/Invision/AP; David Mohr

We're Geeks! Show Us the Money!
After a few stagnant years when films from unknowns sold for little or not at all, Sundance came back with a bang in 2015. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a movie about . . . well, check the title, sold for $12 million and swept both the Grand Jury and Audience awards. Vibrantly directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the film shows us two teens, Greg (Thomas Mann, a real find) and Earl (a stellar RJ Cyler), who geek out making film parodies with titles like A Sockwork Orange and Senior Citizen Kane. Jesse Andrews' script, from his own novel, edges toward Fault in Our Stars tear-jerking when Greg's mom (Connie Britton) persuades him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate with leukemia. But, damn, Me and Earl is too edgy and killer-funny for that. The geeks also rule The Wolfpack, which took the Grand Jury prize for documentary, about a family of six siblings whose parents keep them inside. All they know about the outside world comes from movies. Crystal Moselle's potent debut doc is like nothing you've ever seen. And I mean that as high praise.

Faces You Won't Forget
Let's start with Bel Powley. Just 22, this theater-trained Brit blew audiences away with her dynamite performance in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. She plays Minnie Goetz, a 15-year-old who loses her virginity to her mother's lover. Mom is played by Kristen Wiig, and the aging boy toy is Alexander Skarsgard, but it's Powley who grabs you from her first American-accented line: "I've just had sex — holy shit!" Based on Phoebe Gloeckner's autobiographical novel set in San Francisco in 1976, the film, interspersed with clever animation inspired by Minnie's drawings, makes a striking feature debut for Marielle Heller. But it's Powley who can make you laugh and break your heart at the same time. You'll also find future stars in Rick Famuyiwa's bracing Dope, a kind of Breakfast Club for black Angelenos. Shameik Moore is all kinds of terrific as Malcolm, who leads his pals Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) in whooping it up for "white stuff" like BMX biking, studying for SATs and Nineties hip-hop. The cool kids hate them, naturally. It's irresistible, freewheeling fun.

Sex Is Everywhere
You find it in the strangest places. Melissa Rauch, of The Big Bang Theory, has a sex bout with Sebastian Stan — they play Olympic gymnasts — that will make you doubt your vision in The Bronze. That's nothing compared to what Jack Black does to James Marsden in The D Train. But it's all for laughs. A seriously dramatic and soulful Sarah Silverman takes adultery more seriously in I Smile Back. And the doc Hot Girls Wanted, co-produced by Rashida Jones, opens your eyes to the porn industry in ways that will leave you shaken.

The Best of the Best
In a solid Sundance year, I felt charged by the mesmerizing mind games being played in The End of the Tour. Full disclosure: The film is based on the 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, by Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky. Since it's basically the story of how Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) follows acclaimed Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace (a stellar Jason Segel) around for five days in 1996, the movie could have, well, sucked. Instead, director James Ponsoldt, working from a script by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, turns the give-and-take between Lipsky and a genius who would hang himself 12 years later into a comedy of shocking gravity, a meditation on life and art, shot through with ferocity and feeling. That kind of experiment is what Sundance, at its best, is all about.