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Normani, Dylan O’Brien and More Win Breakthrough Awards at Variety & Golden Globes Sundance Party: ‘I’ve Only Been Here in My Dreams Up Until Now’

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Justice Smith‘s career has taken him to the forefront of major Hollywood tentpoles such as “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu,” but it has never taken him to the Sundance Film Festival until now. The 28-year-old actor was one of five honorees at the Variety & Golden Globes Breakthrough Artists Party presented by Adobe, and earning a breakthrough artist award was “a really warm welcome” to the annual Park City event. Smith has two films world premiering at Sundance: A24’s “I Saw the TV Glow” and Focus Features’ “The American Society of Magical Negroes.”

“I have a note in here to ask if this award shows up on my IMDB, because all that is there is a Razzie nomination,” Smith told the audience to much laughter. “So I would really appreciate if that could make it on there. This is the warmest welcome I could’ve possibly imagined as this is my first time at Sundance as an artist or as a guest. I rarely get awards, so I’m thankful.”

Smith remembered having a crisis about his acting career a few years ago, saying, “It’s easy to get lost in the money of this business…it’s easy to crumble under the weight of representation. Neither was spiritually sustainable for me.”

It was Smith’s goal to revive a feeling of personal discovery in his work, and that’s when he came across “I Saw the TV Glow” and “The American Society of Magical Negroes.”

“In the summer of 2023 right before the strike, I said these are the experiences I need to be having. I can’t succumb to the temptation of what I should be chasing or the pressure to save the world with every career move,” he added. “I have to trust that it’s all for a reason and that my joy in this skin is the most radical mission and that it’s all I need at the end of the day. Lo and behold, if this [award] isn’t confirmation that I’m on the right path.”

Smith was joined by Dylan O’Brien, Normani and Maddie Ziegler as the recipients of the breakthrough artist awards, while his “I Saw the TV Glow” director Jane Schoenbrun was given the breakthrough director award.

Similar to Smith, O’Brien’s career has included huge successes like MTV’s “Teen Wolf” series, but coming to Sundance 2024 marks a bold new chapter for the star. He was only at Sundance once before to debut his first film around 12 years ago, and now he’s back with the film “Ponyboi.” The movie is written by River Gallo, an intersex writer and filmmaker, and centers on an intersex sex worker. Gallo co-presented the award to O’Brien and thanked him for being an ally by agreeing to star in such a queer project.

“[This award] means a lot because of the light it shines on this project,” O’Brien said. “There hasn’t been anything like it. You will be hearing a lot about it. And you will be hearing this name the rest of the festival: River Gallo. To have the world introduced to you couldn’t be a greater honor for me. It’s the best way I could’ve ever come back to a festival and get an award like this. There’s never been a feature film starring an intersex performer as a lead intersex character…not to mention writer! Not to mention entire creator. I am forever grateful to you in so many ways.”

Normani has long been associated with the music world, having rose to stardom as a member of the popular girl group “Fifth Harmony” and released hit solo tracks like “Motivation,” but now she’s made the jump to acting with the Sundance premiere “Freaky Tales.” She got the script just one year ago, and now she’s starring in a film opposite such heavyweight actors as Pedro Pascal.

“I immediately envision my younger self being told that she’d be standing here at Sundance being honored by Variety for her acting debut… there’s no chance she would’ve believed me,” Normani said in her humble acceptance speech. “I have only been here in my dreams up until now… I’ve spent so much of my career performing on many stages, but this stage came with complete surprise but couldn’t have come at a more divine time. I’m constantly striving for opportunities to push the needle and stretch myself creatively.”

Normani added that working on “Freaky Tales” and with her cast (which also includes Jay Ellis and Ben Mendelsohn) was “the ultimate masterclass for me,” adding: “I have never stopped being a student and learned so much just being in the room with these insanely gifted individuals…I showed up every day feeling valued and equaled throughout my entire experience.”

One of the highlights of the Variety & Golden Globes Breakthrough Artists Party was Schoenbrun, whose “I Saw the TV Glow” is emerging as one of the breakout hits of the 2024 festival.

“I used to look like a boy and work a corporate job,” Schoenbrun said. “I have this memory in 2016-2017. I was invited to this closed doors thing with higher-ups from the film non-profit world and agents. An agent told all the non profits of the world, ‘I really need you guys to help me make filmmakers a little less weird. They’re a little too creative, too original. It’s not good for business.’ I was turned off by that. I’ve always had an artist’s heart. Then I became not a boy and I started making movies and became a little more radical.”

“I’ve always acknowledged this intersection of art and commerce… all of us hopefully are here because we believe culture matters and the stories we tell matter,” Schoenbrun continued. “And there’s commercial pressures we all face… I’m proud of trying to negotiate this weird tightrope of art and commerce as a trans person in an industry where on the other side of the table there aren’t many people like me or many people who share my gaze yet. But it’s inevitable… if you’ve ever talked in a college class in the last couple years all those motherfuckers are trans! So they’re coming.”

Ziegler, the dance star known for her collaborations with Sia, closed out the night, receiving an award for her latest film role in “My Old Ass.” The project reunites the actor with her “The Fallout” director Megan Park. Ziegler told her: “I’ll be forever grateful to you for giving me the chance to be taken seriously as an actor.”

Ziegler then addressed her fellow honorees: “I’m such a fan of all of you…it means a lot to be here with all of you tonight. Congrats on all of your films.”

The 2024 Sundance Film Festival runs through Sunday, Jan. 28.

River Gallo and Dylan O’Brien.
Photo by Katie Jones/Variety via Getty Images

Austin Abrams and Justice Smith.
Casey Flanigan/Variety via Getty Images)

Andrea Hamilton, Normani and Derrick Hamilton
John Salangsang/Variety via Getty Images

Jack Champion, Normani, Ramin Setoodeh and Tim Gray
John Salangsang/Variety via Getty Images