Not every summer release will hit the multiplex with hundreds of millions of dollars of marketing and various fast-food tie-ins behind it. Many won’t even hit enough screens to qualify as a “wide release.”
But summer is a big season at your local arthouse theater too, where the race to find a movie that successfully counterprograms superhero bombast and lures in an audience that wants something a little more down-to-earth is already on in earnest. (After all, the arthouse megahit My Big Fat Greek Wedding broke out over the summer of 2002 but actually debuted in April.)
These dramas and comedies are typically lacking in effects budgets and other frippery, and many of them will sink without a trace. But if past summers are any indication, at least a couple of these will break out — if only among the sorts of folks who patronize your local Landmark. And if we’re lucky, some of them will be among the best movies of the year. Check out these 17 smaller, under-the-radar releases if you want a break from the summer heat and the blockbuster shenanigans.
Tully (May 4)
For Tully, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody teamed up for the third time (their other two projects were Juno and Young Adult) to tell the story of Marlo (Charlize Theron), who’s exhausted after the birth of her third child, and the night nurse, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), who seems like an angel sent straight from heaven. Things, of course, do not go as planned. —Alissa Wilkinson
On Chesil Beach (May 18)
Based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name, On Chesil Beach stars Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as newly married virgins in 1962 who find their wedding night complicated by their romance colliding with their personal and societal mores around sex. The film’s narrative structure doesn’t totally work (there are a lot of flashbacks), but it’s funny, heartbreaking, and candid in ways that feel very authentic. —AW
The Tale (May 26 on HBO)
Jennifer Fox is best known as a documentarian, but for The Tale she goes scripted to transform her own harrowing story of being molested as a 13-year-old into a sensitive, beautiful feature that cuts across the most difficult conversations we’re having as a country. Laura Dern plays the grown-up version of Fox as she’s slowly forced to grapple with the fact that the relationship she once had with her 40-year-old swim coach wasn’t a relationship between two consenting adults; the film is about her struggle to find her place in her own story. Is she a victim? A survivor? A heroine? The Tale isn’t a film that wears its importance on its sleeve. But it feels prescient, almost prophetic. —AW
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (June 8)
This movie — a documentary look at the life of Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers — promises to be the sleeper hit of the summer, with critics showering it with praise and audiences weeping at its festival screenings all winter. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a long look at a man who meant so much to so many children, and whose power has continued long past his death in 2003. —AW
First Reformed (June 22)
Ethan Hawke stars in a meditative and unnerving movie from director Paul Schrader about a former military chaplain, Pastor Toller, having a crisis of faith while trying to lead a tiny, shrinking flock in upstate New York. One day, a young couple knock at Toller’s door; the husband, a radical environmentalist, engages Toller in conversation about the inevitability of a man-made apocalypse and his despair. As the story unfolds, Toller’s own state of mind shifts and changes, with him questioning the very shreds of faith that are his lifeblood.
Stark and haunting, First Reformed deeply understands how doubt is the companion to, rather than the enemy of, faith — and it’s one of the strongest, clearest depictions of that contrast in modern cinema. —AW
Under the Silver Lake (June 22)
David Robert Mitchell’s 2015 horror movie It Follows was one of the best entries in the recent boomlet of low-budget, indie horror films. Now his follow-up — a dark mystery about a young man (Andrew Garfield) who grows more and more paranoid as he becomes obsessed with solving a billionaire’s murder and a girl’s disappearance — is opening at the Cannes Film Festival. If nothing else, the movie boasts a wonderfully eclectic cast, including Topher Grace, Riley Keough, Riki Lindhome, and many others. —Todd VanDerWerff
Leave No Trace (June 29)
Director Debra Granik’s latest didn’t receive the ecstatic reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival that her last movie did. But that last movie was 2010’s Winter’s Bone, a Best Picture nominee that also launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career and earned Granik a lot of room to experiment. That it’s taken this long for a new Granik film to hit theaters is a shame, so here’s hoping this tale of a hardcore survivalist and his daughter living way off the grid is worth the wait. —TV
Sicario: Day of the Soldado (June 29)
The bad news: The sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 hit drug-war thriller Sicario features the involvement of neither Villeneuve nor Emily Blunt, who starred in the first film. (Nor does it feature the reliably incredible camerawork of master cinematographer Roger Deakins.) The good news(?) is that Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin are both back on board for a “more severe” story penned by Taylor Sheridan, responsible for writing the first Sicario as well as 2016’s excellent Hell or High Water.
The X-factor here is Italian director Stefano Sollima, who del Toro says brings a more “European sensibility” to Soldado — whatever that means for a film about drug smuggling between the US and Mexico. This one could go either way, but hey, the first Sicario was a bit of an unexpected hit itself, so we’ll keep an open mind. —Genevieve Koski
Three Identical Strangers (June 29)
It’s hard to believe Three Identical Strangers is a true story: Three young men who look shockingly similar discover that they are, in fact, triplets separated at birth. But that’s just the very first part. The documentary starts off like a comedy, but as the story spirals out into something much larger, it ends up feeling like a dystopian tragedy. —AW
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (July 13)
Director Gus Van Sant returns with a kind of biopic about depression and addiction, starring Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan, the cartoonist on whose memoir the film is based. After an accident that left him largely paralyzed, Callahan was forced onto the path to sobriety, a journey that takes him to places he was certainly not expecting. Phoenix co-stars alongside Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara. —AW
Blindspotting (July 27)
Blindspotting was Sundance’s selection to open the 2018 festival in January, and it was in many ways an ideal choice. Starring Hamilton alums Daveed Diggs and Jasmine Cephas Jones alongside Rafael Casal, the film feels shaky at times, but the authenticity and passion of its characters are unmistakable. First-time director Carlos López Estrada works from an often very funny screenplay by Diggs and Casal to tell a story about two Oakland natives navigating their gentrifying hometown, neighborhood violence, police brutality, probation, and ordinary life. The movie takes some bold chances, and it succeeds enough to make it worth watching. (And yes, Diggs raps.) —AW
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (August 3)
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Cameron Post follows the titular teenage girl (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) after she’s sent to a gay conversion therapy program in 1993. The film is the second for writer-director Desiree Akhavan, whose 2014 family comedy Appropriate Behavior suggested a director with an eye for the divide between traditionalism and the modern world. And with Sasha Lane and Jennifer Ehle in the cast, this one might just live up to Akhavan’s considerable promise. —TV
The Wife (August 3)
For Oscar obsessives, the matter of whether Glenn Close might finally win the big prize after six prior nominations (with five in seven years between 1983 and 1989) is one of those questions that float back into discussion every couple of years. And after this movie (and Close especially) received warm reviews at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival — then saw its release delayed to this year, rather than have Close compete in the ultra-competitive 2017 lineup — it seems Close is in it to win it. (And by “it,” we mean another nomination, but maybe she’ll win the Oscar finally!) In the role of a supportive wife who struggles to deal with her husband’s infidelities and secrets in the wake of his Nobel Prize win, she’ll surely have plenty of meaty moments. —TV
BlacKkKlansman (August 10)
Adapting the true story of a black police officer in Colorado who went undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in 1978, Spike Lee’s latest feature will hit theaters timed to the one-year anniversary of the protests against white nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia. Given the subject matter, timing, and Lee writing and directing (not to mention, you know, that title), BlacKkKlansman has all the makings of a provocative, discussion-stoking film, just the sort of thing that can thrive in the late days of summer, when blockbuster fatigue has set in and audiences are primed for something a little less expected and mass-produced.
In Lee’s reliably idiosyncratic hands, there’s really no telling at this point exactly what shape BlacKkKlansman will take, but it’s all but guaranteed to be profoundly interesting. —GK
Madeline’s Madeline (August 10)
Madeline’s Madeline, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance, is the story of a teenager named Madeline (the outstanding Helena Howard, in what’s sure to be a breakout role) who, after spending time under medical supervision for mental health issues, is finding new life and a community away from her obsessive, codependent mother (Miranda July). She finds solace in a theater group even though the woman who leads the group (Molly Parker) may be less supportive than she appears.
Writer-director Josephine Decker forgoes a straightforward telling, opting instead for something that feels woozy and original from the start, drawing us into Madeline’s muddled and sometimes overheated headspace in a way that feels more governed by dream logic than reality. —AW
Skate Kitchen (August 10)
Crystal Moselle’s last film was the documentary The Wolfpack, but for Skate Kitchen, she moves to narrative to tell the story of a group of teenage girls who are skateboarders in New York City. It’s a coming-of-age story that’s based on a real group of girls, and it earned some praise at its Sundance debut earlier this year. —AW
Support the Girls (August 24)
Director Andrew Bujalski is responsible for some of the most enjoyable comedies of the millennium, from 2002’s Funny Ha Ha to 2013’s Computer Chess and 2015’s Results. His latest is set during one long day at a Hooters-style restaurant full of scantily clad waitresses, but if Bujalski’s success with the gym-set Results is any indication, he’s great at exploring the soul-sucking nature of corporate work. And the cast — from Regina Hall to Haley Lu Richardson — is great too. —TV