Breakthrough Performances From the Summer Movies Season

Parker Sawyers

‘Southside With You’

‘Southside-With-You’-Trailer--The-Obamas’-First-Date-Goes-Pretty-WellIn the summer of 1989, the 28-year-old legal intern Barack Obama had the audacity to hope that his senior colleague Michelle Robinson would say “Yes we can” to a first date. Though the future first lady would later debate the technical precision of the word “date,” she did elect to meet this bold young man on a Saturday afternoon. That meeting turned into an all-day ramble through Chicago, from the Art Institute to a screening of “Do the Right Thing,” and now it has been turned into an improbably moving movie.

“He always had a bit of swagger,” said Parker Sawyers, who plays the president to be, opposite Tika Sumpter’s charming Michelle, in the writer-director Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You” (Aug. 26). “A nerdy swagger, but a bit of swagger.”

In opening scenes, his Obama has little of the president’s gravitas and all of his confidence. He drives a rusty Datsun, cranks Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” on its radio and blows cigarette smoke out the window. Somehow, Mr. Sawyers inhabits the man without settling for mere mannerisms.

“It started with a full-on impersonation, like playing basketball and working on Michael Jordan’s fadeaway,” Mr. Sawyers explained, noting that he began with the present-day Obama. “Once I had a mean fadeaway, I worked backward to figure out his qualities, to whittle it back down and figure out why he does … the things … he does … like pauses.”

In the actor’s savvy interpretation, the pauses are the signs of a multitasking mind at work. “I think he’s actually thinking about so many things at once and trying to whittle it down in those pauses,” Mr. Sawyers said. “I wanted to be thinking about something else and making myself focus when I was talking to Michelle.”

Mr. Sawyers’s ease with the part might relate to his upbringing. Born in Indiana, he was raised by his mother, Indianapolis’s first female deputy mayor, and father, an educator who died in 2006. Parker Sawyers later worked for the prosecutor in Marion County. He began acting in 2011, in films like “Zero Dark Thirty.” Besides appearing in Oliver Stone’s coming “Snowden,” he is filming a pilot, “Miranda’s Rights,” a “kind of a law version of ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’”

Despite the film’s lack of overt political content, Mr. Sawyers knows his warm portrait of President Obama might invite controversy. “If people want to hate-watch it, I don’t mind,” he said. “Go buy the ticket!”

Royalty Hightower

‘The Fits’

In Anna Rose Holmer’s tense debut feature, “The Fits” (June 3), Toni is a quiet, observant girl caught between worlds at a Cincinnati rec center. Every day, she works out with her older brother and the tough boys in the boxing gym, throwing punches and picking up towels. As she does, she watches the flashy girls on a dance squad with a mixture of fear and envy, desperate to be part of their team but afraid of failure.

“She’s always questioning herself,” said the 11-year-old actress Royalty Hightower. “She doesn’t know what she wants to be, and it’s like a roller coaster, because she wants to dance, but she also wants to box, and she doesn’t know what one to pick.”

For the dance troupe, Ms. Holmer cast the Q-Kidz Dance Team from the West End of Cincinnati, and that close-knit ensemble gives her film a persuasive sense of family. Yet the director knew she’d found her star after just eight girls auditioned and she met Ms. Hightower.

“It felt like she had this amazing capacity to listen and absorb, not just from me but from her teammates, and that’s a big part of Toni’s role,” Ms. Holmer said. “My only concern was that she was just 9, and I was putting the weight of the film on her shoulders, since she’s in almost every frame of the film. It was her first film and my first film, too — and we were taking a leap of faith together.”

For Ms. Hightower — a Cincinnati native and experienced dancer whose acting mainly had been limited to recreating scenes from the “Chucky” horror films (“He’s fun, and he’s so scary,” she said. “I like scary.”) — the hardest part of the film was pretending to be a bad dancer. “After you’ve been a dancer for so long, it’s hard to act like you don’t know how to dance,” she said.

In the film, which also stars Alexis Neblett, her charming, more bubbly stepsister, dancers begin suffering inexplicable “fits”: full-body spasms that leave them writhing on the floor. Is it the water? A contagion? A mass psychosis? As the audience tries to figure it out, so does Toni. And so did Ms. Hightower.

The thoughtful young actress said she still can’t explain what caused the events of the film. “I don’t know what it is,” she said. “It was scary, even though I know it wasn’t real.”

Michael Barbieri

‘Little Men’

In “Little Men,” directed by Ira Sachs, 14-year-old Michael Barbieri plays Tony, a big-city kid with a huge personality and even bigger dreams.

“Tony’s very similar to me actually,” Mr. Barbieri said confidently, in a New York Italian accent so thick it sounds the way home-cooked lasagna smells. “His goal is to get into LaGuardia High School for the performing arts, and that was my goal, too. And I got in.”

In this acutely naturalistic indie (opening July 15), Mr. Barbieri’s Tony is a Brooklyn kid whose friendship with his new buddy Jake is imperiled when Jake’s parents, as new landlords, threaten to triple his mother’s rent. Jake, played by the wide-eyed Theo Taplitz, is a sensitive artist. Tony is a charismatic fast-talker, determined to become a star. In real life, Mr. Barbieri, who will attend LaGuardia next year, grew up downtown and fell for acting after playing the Grinch in a play at Our Lady of Pompeii School in Manhattan.

“I’ve been told that I was a bit of a brat, and the Grinch was not the nicest person,” he said. “So it was really fun to get laughs from the crowd and the teachers. I won’t never forget it.”

Soon after, he decided to trade baseball practices for acting lessons. “I searched on Google for acting classes,” he said, “and I found the Lee Strasberg institute in Union Square.”

On the website of the method-acting school, he read course descriptions he didn’t entirely understand at the time and saw the faces of some of his favorite actors: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Now he goes to acting classes on the weekend.

“The first thing you see is a bunch of movie posters: ‘Scarface,’ ‘Raging Bull,’ ‘Godfather,’” he said. “My favorite movie is a classic: ‘Goodfellas.’ Joe Pesci and De Niro and Ray Liotta? The acting is amazing.”

Mr. Sachs discovered Mr. Barbieri through the school and clearly sensed that he had found not only a talented young actor but also a character. Mr. Sachs even wrote in a scene of Mr. Barbieri and his instructor, in which they scream at each other in an ever-escalating acting exercise.

Sarah Gadon


When Sarah Gadon was in her early 20s, she would read scripts that simply did not speak to her. “The roles for girls in their early 20s are the manic pixie dream girl or the ingénue, or the bubbly girlfriend, and I was just in a place where that didn’t resonate with me or what I liked about films,” she said. “I was drawn to darker roles, roles that were against type.”

Raised in Toronto, Ms. Gadon, a star of “Indignation,” opening July 29, began acting at the age of 10, but her parents refused to let her take a regular role on a television series and insisted that she finish school. So, as Ms. Gadon began to act, she also attended performing arts schools and completed a college degree in cinema studies. “I really fell in love with auteur filmmaking,” she said. “I was lucky that my first major roles were with David Cronenberg and Denis Villeneuve, and I was able to really focus on films with strong directors.”

With Mr. Cronenberg as something of a mentor, Ms. Gadon, now 29, has carved out unusual roles for herself as an actress of restrained, sometimes eerie, precision and intensity, in films like Mr. Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” and “Maps to the Stars,” as well as “Antiviral,” by his son, Brandon Cronenberg, and Mr. Villeneuve’s “Enemy.” Most recently, she appeared in the Hulu series “11.22.63” opposite James Franco.

In “Indignation,” which James Schamus adapted from Philip Roth’s novel, Ms. Gadon plays Olivia, a beautiful blond student who becomes more than just the object of a young Jewish man’s affection. Once again, she plays against expectations with a performance that, The Hollywood Reporter wrote, plants “quiet traces of chaos beneath Olivia’s dreamy poise.”

“She’s a deeply troubled girl, and she’s a smart girl,” Ms. Gadon said. “She’s kind of trapped in the ideology of the time, and she’s trying to fight it and trying to express herself in all of these misguided ways, which is something we all struggle with.”

The actress and her director had frank discussions about the fact that Mr. Roth’s novels are not exactly celebrated for their depictions of women. Mr. Schamus, the Oscar-nominated producer and screenwriter here making his debut as a director, urged her to reread Sylvia Plath, since there’s some evidence that the sexually forward, darkly comic yet tormented Olivia was inspired by the poet.

“It was an interesting way to approach this character in a Philip Roth piece, who’s so often criticized for being anti-feminist,” said Ms. Gadon, who was surprised by the humor and fun of Plath’s journals. “It made her so much more than just a troubled girl. She has a million moods a minute.”