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Atlanta moviegoers angling for the Sundance Film Festival experience can get it this week — in a sense — as the revered event goes online and on the road. With the specter of COVID-19 hovering, the Park City, Utah, fest will fulfill is 2021 mission with digital screenings open to the general public and a Satellite Screens program in 30 cities.

Sundance 2021 logoAmerica’s most prestigious showcase for independent feature films and documentaries, hosted locally by the Atlanta Film Society, Plaza Atlanta and Dad’s Garage Theatre Company, begins Thursday and runs through February 3. Thirteen films will screen here, including Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It and Ailey. 

Sundance officials last spring watched as one festival after another was canceled or became virtual. By last summer, they knew they’d need a new approach and contacted a number of art houses as potential partners.

“It’s been a journey of several months of them figuring out what they wanted to do, what they can do and what meets the Sundance experience,” says Plaza Theatre owner Chris Escobar, who’s executive director of the Atlanta Film Society.

Atlanta Sundance-goers will have three places to see films — indoors at the Plaza Atlanta in Poncey-Highland, outdoors at the Plaza drive-in and outdoors at the Dad’s Garage drive-in in the Old Fourth Ward. Atlanta one of the few satellite cities offering both indoor and outdoor screenings.

Sundance 2021

Daniel Kaluuya (at the podium) is Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judus and the Black Messiah” screening February 1 at the Plaza indoors and Dad’s Garage Theatre’s drive-in.

Atlanta screenings run through February 2; the national online component goes one day longer.

In all, 13 films — all world premieres — will screen locally, including the newly added JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021, 126 minutes), a biographical drama about Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Chicago police shot and killed him in 1969 at age  21 after an FBI informant betrayed him. Black Messiah is earning Daniel Kaluuya (2017’s Get Out) Oscar buzz. Screening: 9:30 p.m. February 1. Plaza indoors and Dad’s Garage drive-in.

The drama CODA (2021, 111 minutes) opens the Atlanta screenings. The drama follows about a young woman (Emilia Jones), who’s the only hearing person in her family. She must decide whether to stay with her family or chase a love of music. Two screenings on January 28: 7:15 p.m. (Plaza indoors) and 7:45 p.m. (Plaza drive-in).

Escobar says he’s proud of the diversity of the Atlanta lineup. “We have films that speak to the African American community, the LGBT community, the Hispanic community, but aside from ethnicity and orientation, we have films that speak to horror film fans and to folks who like powerful dramas,” he says. “They are all vibrant in their uniqueness.”

Other notable screenings, in chronological order:

RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT (2021, 90 minutes), a documentary that follows the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award winner from her early days in Puerto Rico to her successes on Broadway and in Hollywood. Two January 29 screenings: 7 p.m. (Plaza indoors) and 7:30 p.m. (Plaza drive-in).

PASSING (2021, 98 minutes), a drama based on the 1929 Nella Larsen novel about the unexpected reunion of high-school friends, Black women who can pass as white. One does. Two January 30 screenings: 6:30 p.m. (Plaza indoors) and 7 p.m. (Plaza drive-in).

Sundance 2021

“Passing” (with Ruth Negga, left, and Tessa Thompson) screens twice on January 30. Two screenings on January 28.

MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY (2021, 91 minutes), a documentary that looks at the life and ideas of Pauli Murray, a nonbinary Black lawyer, activist and poet who influenced both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall. Two January 31 screenings: 6:30 p.m. Dad’s Garage drive-in) and 6:30 p.m. (Plaza indoors).

ALL LIGHT, EVERYWHERE ( 2021, 105 minutes), a documentary that looks at the biases in how we see things, focusing on the use of police body cameras. Screening: 7 p.m. January 31 (Plaza drive-in).

AILEY (2021, 82 minutes), an immersive portrait of dance pioneer Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), told through his own words and a new dance inspired by his life. Two February 1 screenings: 7 p.m. Plaza indoors and 7:30 p.m. (Plaza drive-in).

COMING HOME IN THE DARK (2021, 93 minutes), a horror film about a teacher who’s forced to confront a brutal act from his past when a pair of drifters takes him and his family on a nightmare road-trip. Screening: 10:15 p.m. February 1 (Plaza drive-in).

In addition to the screenings, some movies are part of Beyond Film events, which feature metro organizations hosting conversations. Participants include the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the BronzeLens Film Festival, Morehouse Human Rights Festival, Out on Film, Videodrome and Women in Film and Television (Atlanta).

Beyond Film conversations at Sundance normally require badges or a private invitation but are available to everyone anywhere this year. “This is a level of accessibility that has never been possible through Sundance or part of the approach,” Escobar says. “That means that everyone can be part of some of the innovation and access.”

Sundance 2021

In “CODA,” which opens satellite screenings in Atlanta, Emilia Jones plays a young woman who is the only hearing person in her family.

Here, in chronological order, are the remaining Atlanta screenings:

 CRYPTOZOO (2021, 95 minutes). Cryptozookeepers trying to capture a legendary dream-eating hybrid creature have second thoughts. Should they display these rare, mythical beasts or should they remain unknown. Two January 29 screenings: 9:30 p.m. (Plaza indoors) and 9:45 p.m. (Plaza drive-in).

SUPERIOR (2021, 97 minutes), a drama about a woman on the run who returns to her upstate New York hometown to hide out with her identical twin sister, altering the trajectory of both their lives. Two January 30 screenings: 9:15 p.m. (Plaza indoors) and 9:45 p.m. (Plaza drive-in).

THE BLAZING WORLD (2021, 101 minutes). Fantasy. Decades after the accidental drowning of a twin girl, a self-destructive young woman returns to her family home only to be drawn to an alternate dimension where her sister may still be alive. Two January 31 screenings: 9 p.m. (Plaza indoors) and 9:45 p.m. (Plaza drive-in).

TRY HARDER! (2021, 85 minutes) Documentary. In a universe where nerds are the cool kinds, the orchestra is world class and being Asian American is the norm. Follow as high school seniors compete for the top prize — admission to the college of their dreams. Two February 2 screenings: 7 p.m. (Plaza indoors) and 7:30 p.m. (Plaza drive-in).

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SUNDANCE TICKETS: $15 per virtual screening, $350 for virtual festival pass. Details HERE.

SATELLITE SCREEN TICKETS: $20 Plaza indoors; $15-$50 for Plaza and Dad’s Garage drive-ins. Details HERE.

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