A Rocky Mountain high: New England at Sundance

Water.org co-founders Matt Damon and Gary White participated in a panel session hosted by Stella Artois on Jan. 23 in Park City, Utah, regarding the current global water crisis. Rick Kern photo/Getty Images for Stella ArtoisWater.org co-founders Matt Damon and Gary White participated in a panel session hosted by Stella Artois on Jan. 23 in Park City, Utah, regarding the current global water crisis. Rick Kern photo/Getty Images for Stella Artois

PARK CITY, Utah – Dodging the Northeast’s first blizzard of the year, a number of New Englanders made their way out to Park City, Utah, last week to show off their wares at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The annual ski town festival has earned a solid reputation as a harbinger of films that will be talked about throughout the year, all previewed at a frosty 7,000 feet above sea level.

Sundance 2016 doesn’t boast the New England-heavy film stock it did, say, in 2014 with examinations of Whitey Bulger, Aaron Swartz, and Pamela Smart among the 100-plus screenings. But it found room for familiar faces and Northeast flair in several films and on several panels in the early days of the fest.

The Sundance model has grown and shifted with the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. While the festival has always had a reputation for quirky film fare, and has been a mecca for independent films and their potential buyers, streaming giants have increased the odds that a substantial number of the indie offerings will find their way to the silver screen, or at least the living room and laptop.

Netflix and Amazon have been prolifically purchasing films at the 2016 festival. Among them is a Greater Boston offering, “Tallulah,” which Netflix snapped up for about $5 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Cambridge-native director Sian Heder’s film centers on a woman (Ellen Page) who attempts to protect a toddler by kidnapping her from her wealthy and negligent mother (Tammy Blanchard).

Another high-profile streaming service buy: Amazon paid around $10 million for “Manchester By the Sea,” a Matt Damon-produced drama starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Kyle Chandler. This poignant exploration of loss and estrangement follows Affleck as an apartment janitor in Quincy who returns home to care for his orphaned nephew.

Local faces peppered the festival during the festival’s first five days. Damon spoke with Gary White, his co-founder of the nonprofit Water.org, at a Stella Artois panel discussion to raise awareness of the global water crisis in impoverished world regions.

At the Saturday panel discussion, Damon and White announced their “Buy a Lady a Drink” campaign. About 663 million people worldwide lack access to clean water, a situation that disproportionately affects women who collectively spend millions of hours searching for the water and collecting it.

“I’ve seen how the lives of women and their families can change when they get access to clean water,” Damon said in a statement. “Access to water is access to education, access to work, access to the kind of future we want for all humankind.”

Two of this reporter’s additional favorites from the past two days:
• Already sparkling from its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, “The Lobster” was featured in the Sundance Spotlight section, which highlights some of independent film’s buzziest offerings. The bizarre, sharply funny, and surreptitiously touching satire of a society obsessed with romantic coupling is the Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’s first English language film. It features a riveting cast, including Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, in a searing send-up of nuclear couple-hood against the dour backdrop of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

• “Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny” focused on the Sundance staple and director of the 2015 darling “Boyhood.” In a joyous review of the always innovative and deceptively low-key director’s decades of work – from before “Slacker” marked his Sundance debut 25 years ago – “Dream is Destiny” charts the long cinematographic career of a preternaturally humble creator. Louis Black and Karen Bernstein’s documentary masterfully tracks a career that has endured and expanded over the decades, well-timed to the forthcoming release of “Everybody Wants Some,” described as a “spiritual sequel” to “Dazed and Confused.”