12 Breakout Stars From Sundance 2016 - Rolling Stone
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12 Breakout Stars From Sundance 2016

From an 11-year-old girl to the Meryl Streep of microbudget indies, meet your new Sundance stars

Breakout Stars; Sundance

Elliot Davis/Sundance, Paul Yee/Sundance

Sundance is all about discovering something new — the place where a single movie can turn a debt-ridden grad student into a bonafide indie auteur, or a relative unknown into a major star. Buzz is king in Park City's mountains and Main Street, and nobody who weathered the lines and snagged the coveted last seat at a world premiere is content with watching a good movie. They want to see a coronation.

And this year's festival was absolutely bursting with them, as a pop star emerged as a multi-faceted talent, a marginalized actor cast himself as Hollywood's next big thing, and a handful of wide-eyed kids became the new faces of indie film (or, in the case of Other People scene-stealer J.J. Totah, left a calling card to remember). These are the 12 breakout stars of Sundance 2016; learn their names, because it won't be long before you're hearing about them everywhere.

Royalty Hightower; The Fits

Paul Yee/Sundance

Royalty Hightower, ‘The Fits’

Hightower is so immensely graceful and stoic in her first screen performance that, seeing the actress' name in the movie's end credits, you can't help but think that her parents hit the nail on the head. As Toni, an 11-year-old tomboy who's ostracized by the girls in the dance studio down the hall from her boxing gym, she's too self-possessed to be precocious, and too vulnerable to let her character's fists get in the way of making friends. It's the rare preteen performance that feels like something genuinely new; watching Hightower struggle to find her footing in a world that's changing beneath her feet was Sundance at its best.

Nick Jonas; Goat

Ethan Palmer/Sundance

Nick Jonas, ‘Goat’

Jonas was a tween TV sensation before puberty saw him become a virile pop star, which didn't necessarily mean that he could act. We now have proof that yes, he most certainly can. As Brett Land, a brawny frat boy who's never seen a keg he couldn't tap or a blonde he didn't want to, Jonas delivers a subdued and increasingly sincere performance that declares his talent without calling attention to his fame. When his younger brother decides to rush and Brett starts to question the hyper-masculine culture of Greek life, the movie hinges on Jonas' ability to convey a meathead's moral crisis. That he sells the internal conflict with the same degree of nuance and intelligence that Justin Timberlake brought to The Social Network is a minor miracle.

Riley Keough; Lovesong

Actress Riley Keough poses for a portrait to promote the series, "The Girlfriend Experience", at the Toyota Mirai Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Riley Keough, ‘Lovesong’

She will always be Elvis' granddaughter, but 2016 is officially the year when that fact becomes an afterthought to Riley Keough's talent rather than a justification for her fame. The soul of So-Yong Kim's heartbreaking new film about the romantic road not traveled, Keough plays Sarah, a young mother whose husband is always out of town and whose best friend Mindy (Jena Malone) is growing close enough to touch. Cut to: Three years later, when Sarah and Mindy reconnect on the eve of the latter's marriage to a man. Defined by aborted smiles and swallowed words, Keough's subtle and unerringly real performance normalizes regret to the point where it's just another fact of life; she does an incredible job of making us feel the weight of what Sarah has lost, and also the beauty of what she hasn't.

Kika Magalhaes; The Eyes of My Mother


Kika Magalhaes, ‘The Eyes of My Mother’

Nicolas Pesce's haunting debut unfolds like the nightmare someone might have after falling asleep during the last scene of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the demure Francisca — a lonely farm girl who makes lifelong friends by shackling them to the floor of her barn and gouging out their eyes — is nothing less than a beautiful Leatherface for the hipster generation. And it's Kika Magalhaes who carries the entire film on her thin shoulders, with the uncompromising Portuguese actress stubbornly denying her character the empathy or easy explanations for the bottomless evil on display. The result is a great movie monster in human form; perhaps the only thing scarier than this performance is the thought of not seeing Magalhaes in something else very soon.

Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation

Elliot Davis/Sundance

Nate Parker, ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Even if he hadn't appeared on screen for a single second, Nate Parker still would've been the breakout star of this year's Sundance — the writer-director's raw and raging Nat Turner biopic was sold for more money than any finished film in festival history. But the movie wouldn't have connected with audiences if not for Parker's righteous lead performance, which blazes a violent trail of rebellion between Solomon Northrup and William Wallace, and turned a hardworking screen veteran (he's great in the likes of Beyond the Lights and Ain't Them Bodies Saints) into an overnight A-lister. In the age of #OscarsSoWhite, Parker gave himself the role of a lifetime.

Morgan Saylor; White Girl

Michael Simmonds/Sundance

Morgan Saylor, ‘White Girl’

There are so many remarkable things about Saylor's ferocious lead performance in White Girl that it's hard to know where to begin. Obliterating whatever assumptions you might have from watching her on Homeland, the 21-year-old plays a fresh-faced college sophomore named Leah who moves to Queens, falls for a square-jawed Puerto Rican drug dealer, and finds herself stuck with a kilo of unsold blow when her new beau gets pinched. Saylor's fully weaponized embodiment of racial privilege always saves the movie from sensationalism, even as Leah snorts her body weight in cocaine and tries to become the Tony Montana of lower Manhattan. Vulnerable, invincible, empowered, and pathetic all at once, few actresses have better navigated the difference between being naked and being exposed — and it looks like we ain't seen nothing yet.

Kate Lyn Sheil; Kate Plays Christine

Sean Price Williams/Sundance

Kate Lyn Sheil, ‘Kate Plays Christine’

Pretty much the Meryl Streep of the micro-budget film community, Kate Lyn Sheil is hardly a new face to audiences who like to look for movies beyond the multiplexes. But never before has she had a part so knotted as this, the role of a lifetime: playing herself, or at least the version of herself who's preparing to play Christine Chubbock — the Sarasota TV news reporter who shot herself in the head on air in 1974. It's a performance with more layers than a government conspiracy, and while the actress shifts between her two characters with expert fluidity, the genius of Sheil's work is in how she eventually blurs them together. By the end of the movie's confrontational final scene, you'll be he happy to watch Kate play anyone she wants.

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