By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comedy stars are the highlight of films exploring human nature and existence that will compete in the U.S. drama category at the Sundance Film Festival next year, announced by organizers on Wednesday.
From "The Bronze," co-written by and starring "The Big Bang Theory" actress Melissa Rauch as an aging former gymnast, to "Flight of the Conchords" actor Jemaine Clement switching edgy humor for a more emotional performance in "People, Places, Things," comedians are finding new territory in smaller films.
"Comedians have an inherent ability to observe human nature," Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper said. "They make it into jokes most of the time, but now they're actually stepping into it as a performance, and it really comes from understanding it."
Sarah Silverman, known for her raunchy, sharp-tongued wit, will take a dramatic turn in "I Smile Back," which Cooper described as "an intense dark portrait of a suburban mother dealing with pretty dark demons."
Started by actor-director Robert Redford in 1978 and going into its 31st year, the Sundance Film Festival is the premiere gathering of the U.S. independent film industry in snow-covered Park City, Utah, and often launches strong awards contenders and new film stars.
Jazz-drumming drama "Whiplash," which won the audience and grand jury awards at this year's festival, is now part of the Hollywood awards race, with actor J.K. Simmons one of the early front-runners for the Oscar for best supporting actor.
The upcoming festival will run from Jan. 22 through Feb. 1.
The drama competition will see films explore existential issues or a bigger commentary on human nature.
"Advantageous" questions society's notions of beauty, aging and relevance in a near-futuristic world, while "Z for Zachariah" uses a post-apocalyptic environment to discuss the primal elements of survival.
In the eclectic U.S. documentary competition, with films ranging from Evel Knievel biopic "Being Evel" and Los Angeles porn industry insight "Hot Girls Wanted" to a white supremacist trying to take over a small town in "Welcome to Leith," films were selected for their innovative approach.
"There are so many interesting and important subjects, but what elevates the ones that make it into the festival are story and how that story is told on screen," said the festival's director of programing, Trevor Groth. "There are some really incredible cinematic films in this section."
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Leslie Adler)