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Maggie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin.
Maggie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin.
Roadside Attractions

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Big Bird, dogs with PTSD, and 13 other summer movies sans superheroes

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Summer might be the season of explosions and superheroes (on the big screen, anyway), but it's also a time for counter-programming, with a ton of "other" movies launching right alongside the blockbusters. The warmer months are when independent distributors take chances on films that are a little smaller-scale and big studios try new things in hopes that something off-the-wall might catch on. lists 130 separate films coming out this summer.

Here are 15 upcoming and under-the-radar releases we think might be worthwhile, along with reasons we could be wrong. If you're looking for something off the beaten path, read on.

    Movies from off the beaten path

  1. Far From the Madding Crowd

    Release date: May 1
    Director: Thomas Vinterberg
    Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen
    Why you should see it: One of the few films daring to open on the same day as Avengers: Age of Ultron, Far from the Madding Crowd is canny counter-programming. It's got a female lead, it's set in Victorian England and thus appeals to period-piece fans, and it's based on a novel by Thomas Hardy — all things that are decidedly not true of Marvel's gigantic hit. To be sure, period pieces can go horribly wrong, but Vinterberg has been responsible for some terrific films, most recently The Hunt. And, hey, Mulligan is consistently great. So at least you'll have that going for you.
    Why you should skip it: It has just a 64 on Metacritic, where even the more enthusiastic reviews amount to, "Hey, it was just fine!"
    Perfect for: A Sunday afternoon out with your grandmother.

  2. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

    Release date: May 6
    Directors: Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker
    Why you should see it: If you can watch this documentary's trailer and not tear up just a little bit, you are made of stronger stuff than us. The "unseen person behind something hugely popular" approach is a staple of show business documentaries, and there are few people who fit that description better than Spinney, the man who's been inside the Big Bird suit since Sesame Street began. As a bonus, he also serves as puppeteer for Oscar the Grouch.
    Why you should skip it: Even the trailer struggles a bit to infuse some drama into the life of a man who found his dream job and stuck with it for four decades. But maybe a movie like this doesn't need drama.
    Perfect for: Being reminded that you, too, were young once and your mortality is inevitable.

  3. Maggie

    Release date: May 8
    Director: Henry Hobson
    Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson
    Why you should see it: Movies that play around with the conventions of horror films are often lots of fun, and the zombie subgenre offers plenty of room for experimentation. (See also: Shaun of the Dead.) In this family drama, Schwarzenegger stars as a man living in a post-apocalyptic United States, fighting to keep his daughter — who is slowly becoming a zombie — from turning into a flesh-craving ghoul. Is it going to win Best Picture? No. But it's an interesting stretch for Schwarzenegger and a fun take on a familiar story.
    Why you should skip it: Man, the voiceover in the trailer sounds heavy-handed.
    Perfect for: Goth father/daughter outings.

  4. The Connection

    Release date: May 15
    Director: Cédric Jimenez
    Starring: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette
    Why you should see it: If you're a film fan, you may be familiar with the famed "French connection" operation — which smuggled heroin into the United States via Turkey and then (you guessed it) France — thanks to the 1971 classic The French Connection. This film isn't exactly a companion piece to that one, but it does tell viewers what French police and criminals were up to on the other side of the Atlantic. Plus it's a French crime thriller. How often do those land prime summer release dates?
    Why you should skip it: Most Americans know Dujardin for his work as a silent comedian in The Artist and might be unwilling to accept him in a grittier role.
    Perfect for: Father's Day (especially if your father is Québécois).

  5. I'll See You in My Dreams

    Release date: May 15
    Director: Brett Haley
    Starring: Blythe Danner, Sam Elliott, Martin Starr
    Why you should see it: For the most part, the love lives of older people are something American movies avoid at all costs. Hell, the love lives of people in their 40s are something American movies avoid at all costs. That's what makes this potential indie charmer such a find. Danner plays a woman wondering if she's just waiting for her life to be over, when she meets an elderly gentleman played by world's sexiest old guy Elliott. The film received warm notices at Sundance.
    Why you should skip it: The jokes in the trailer are hacky, sitcom stuff, no matter how great the leads look.
    Perfect for: Anybody in your life who owns My Big Fat Greek Wedding on DVD.

  6. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

    Release date: June 12
    Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
    Starring: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke
    Why you should see it: This film was the sensation at Sundance 2015, with its first screening attracting the kind of buzz normally enjoyed by Best Picture nominees. Those who love this movie don't just love it — they want to press it upon you like a well-loved book and insist you watch it. That's a lot of pressure for a story about two teenage wannabe filmmakers hanging out with a girl with cancer, but every positive review of Me and Earl suggests it's more than its clichéd premise.
    Why you should skip it: Alternately, there are quite a few people who strongly dislike this movie. But isn't it fun to be part of a big argument about whether a movie is great or completely terrible?
    Perfect for: The members of your "Will Olivia Cooke die in this movie or not?" gambling pool.

  7. Magnolia Pictures

    The Wolfpack

    Release date: June 12
    Director: Crystal Moselle
    Why you should see it: Another Sundance favorite, this documentary follows a family of siblings locked away in a New York apartment, mostly experiencing the outside world via the films they watch — which they then recreate with homemade props. The premise sounds either unbearably precious or horribly exploitative, but the reviews surrounding the film suggest Moselle has done a good job of threading the needle to make a movie that examines the boys without treating them like strange freaks.
    Why you should skip it: If you're looking for a feel-good flick, you may want to look elsewhere.
    Perfect for: Anyone who wants to hear a true story, well told.

  8. Dope

    Release date: June 19
    Director: Rick Famuyiwa
    Starring: Shameik Moore, Zoë Kravitz, Keith Stanfield
    Why you should see it: Yet another Sundance sensation opening in June (because the indie film industry apparently hasn't learned anything from its older siblings at the big studios), Dope follows a geeky Inglewood teenager who dreams of attending Harvard. He's sucked into a wild night with potentially criminal undertones and struggles to uphold his reputation while seeming cool nonetheless. And all of it is underscored with a consideration of how hard it can be for minority kids to succeed if they're even slightly perceived as not having completely clean noses.
    Why you should skip it: This movie was also greeted with a number of high-profile pans amid the applause. Most notable is Wesley Morris's take on Grantland.
    Perfect for: As Morris points out, it seems aimed at people who really love the movie Go.

  9. Max

    Release date: June 26
    Director: Boaz Yakin
    Starring: Robbie Amell, Lauren Graham, Thomas Haden Church
    Why you should see it: While it's unlikely that Max will be one of this season's best films, it's remarkable that it exists at all, not to mention that it's being released by a major studio like Warner Bros. See, the movie's protagonist is a dog. And not an animated dog. A real-life dog dog. The hugely talented human cast is here to service the story of a dog that suffers post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Afghanistan. It almost sounds like a family-friendly American Sniper, which means it could do very well at the box office.
    Why you should skip it: If the words "family-friendly American Sniper" don't fill you with anticipation, feel free to find something else.
    Perfect for: Finding something everyone in the family can watch over Independence Day weekend.

  10. Mr. Holmes

    Release date: July 17
    Directed by: Bill Condon
    Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada
    Why you should see it: Are you not — after Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jonny Lee Miller — sick of Sherlock Holmes yet? Well, then, here's an elderly Sherlock to provide you with a little midsummer mystery solving. Truth be told, the presence of yet another Sherlock Holmes story would make this one easy to avoid, but for two things — McKellen, who is always good, and Condon, whose best movie remains Gods and Monsters, in which he directed McKellen to an Oscar nomination.
    Why you should skip it: Mr. Holmes is yet another Sherlock Holmes story in a world that has seen far too many of them.
    Perfect for: Anyone who opens their individually wrapped candies way too loudly in a movie theater, if you catch our drift.

  11. Southpaw

    Release date: July 24
    Director: Antoine Fuqua
    Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker
    Why you should see it: Late summer is when the first serious Oscar contenders start to pop up. It's when Boyhood launched in 2014, for instance. Southpaw — yet another movie about boxing — wouldn't normally seem like a major threat for any big prizes, but for one thing: star Gyllenhaal seriously bulked himself up for the role, in the kind of physical transformation that sometimes indicates a stunt and sometimes indicates a truly revelatory performance. Oh, and McAdams is here, too, hopefully riding high on her performance in True Detective, season two. (That launches June 21 on HBO.)
    Why you should skip it: Another hyper-masculine movie about a boxer and the woman who loves him? There's no way Southpaw is as adroit at deconstructing masculinity as Gyllenhaal's last Oscar bid, Nightcrawler.
    Perfect for: The first public meetup of your bodybuilding forum.

  12. A24 Films

    The End of the Tour

    Release date: July 31
    Director: James Ponsoldt
    Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Anna Chlumsky
    Why you should see it: Bringing a famous writer to the screen is always a risky proposition, and it only becomes more so when that famous writer is as beloved as David Foster Wallace, the subject of The End of the Tour. But Ponsoldt's biopic of the Infinite Jest author gets around that problem by centering on a journalist profiling the writer, thereby creating a film about the celebrity industrial complex, how difficult it is to understand depression from the outside, and the weight of genius. Those who love this movie really love it.
    Why you should skip it: If you want to watch a movie about Wallace, it might be best to wait for a documentary or something, as The End of the Tour only uses him as a vehicle to explore its real concerns.
    Perfect for: Every literary-minded 26-year-old man you know.

  13. Sony Pictures Classics

    The Diary of a Teenage Girl

    Release date: August 7
    Director: Marielle Heller
    Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig
    Why you should see it: Teenage girls are all too often lampooned in pop culture, their interests and desires written off as laughable. That's why it's so nice to see a major movie (albeit an independent one) taking such a character seriously. Powley stars as a young woman who falls into an affair with her mother's boyfriend, and the film's 1970s San Francisco setting adds to its overall aesthetic. Reviews out of Sundance were mostly positive. If Heller nails it, this could be the best indie movie about a teen girl since the sadly underseen Fish Tank.
    Why you should skip it: This guy really hated it.
    Perfect for: Anybody you can convince to see "the new Kristen Wiig movie."

  14. TriStar Pictures

    Ricki and the Flash

    Release date: August 7
    Director: Jonathan Demme
    Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer
    Why you should see it: This movie has: a) Streep playing a faded rocker, b) Demme directing his first narrative feature since 2008's Rachel Getting Married, c) Kline in a comedy, d) the talented Gummer playing the daughter of her real-life mother, and e) a script by Diablo Cody, who's only gotten more talented since winning an Oscar for Juno. (If you haven't seen 2011's scabrous Young Adult, do so now.) How is Ricki and the Flash not the only movie anybody is looking forward to this year?
    Why you should skip it: There are no good reasons to skip this movie.
    Perfect for: All Americans.

  15. IFC Films

    Sleeping With Other People

    Release date: August 21
    Director: Leslye Headland
    Starring: Alison Brie, Jason Sudeikis, Natasha Lyonne
    Why you should see it: Everyone who saw last year's charming What If (and there are far too few of those people) will know that the romantic comedy has left behind the major studios and gone indie. That makes this late-summer entry a particularly promising choice for when you're ready for things to just cool off already. Brie and Sudeikis play a serial cheater and a womanizer, respectively, and all you need to see is that description to know how Sleeping With Other People ends. But reviews suggest the movie nails the rapid-fire dialogue necessary for this genre.
    Why you should skip it: You're still biased against romantic comedies because you haven't seen enough good ones.
    Perfect for: Date night.


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