The 50 Best Indie Dramas of All Time

Updated July 23, 2024 • Staff

The one genre that indie movies have perfected is drama, and it's not just due to budget constraints. Films like Juno and Lady Bird have shown that a realistic, stripped-down approach works best for dramas.

Below are the best indie drama movies as ranked by our staff. 

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50.

Private Life (2018)

Paul Giamatti, man. Ever watched Win/Win? What a performance. I didn’t think he could do any better than that. But here he did. This movie is now on Netflix. It’s about a couple that is trying to have a kid but can’t. Their frustration grows, but so does their willingness to do whatever it takes to become parents. They try to adopt, go to fertility clinics and ultimately ask their niece to donate her eggs. To really work, such a plot requires well-written, multifaceted characters one can relate to. I did, and it really worked.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Actor: Alyssa Cheatham, Amaya Press, Caroline Martin, Danny Deferrari, Denis O'Hare, Desmin Borges, Emily Robinson, Fenton Lawless, Francesca Root-Dodson, Gabrielle Reidy, Hettienne Park, John Carroll Lynch, Kathryn Hahn, Katrine Hoyt, Kayli Carter, Kelly Miller, Kerry Flanagan, Lizzy DeClement, Maddie Corman, Molly Shannon, Paul Giamatti, Samantha Buck, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Tracee Chimo
Director: Tamara Jenkins
Rating: R
49.

Fresh (1994)

Filmed with a perfect blend of realism and embellished style, Fresh is a coming-of-age story set in the poverty of the New York City projects, wherein the protagonist "grows up" only by learning to become dangerous and losing his sense of self. There's no satisfaction in watching 12-year-old Michael (or "Fresh," as he's called) use his supposed innocence as a tool to manipulate his way to a safer position. The system continues to reign supreme and Fresh only buries himself into a deeper hole. Boaz Yakin's direction is direct and expressive, the city stirring to vibrant life in every scene, and the tremendous performances from Giancarlo Esposito and a then-teenage Sean Nelson drive home the tragedy with full force.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Actor: Afi Bijou, Ali A. Wahhab, Anthony Ruiz, Anthony Thomas, Belinda Becker, Charles Malik Whitfield, Cheryl Freeman, Cortez Nance Jr., Curtis McClarin, Danielia L. Cotton, Davenia McFadden, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Elsie Hilario, F. Murray Abraham, Giancarlo Esposito, Guillermo Díaz, Iraida Polanco, Jacinto Taras Riddick, Jason Rodriguez, Jean-Claude La Marre, Jerome Butler, José Zúñiga, Luis Lantigua, Matthew Faber, N'Bushe Wright, N'Bushe Wright, Natima Bradley, Robert Jimenez, Ron Brice, Samuel L. Jackson, Sean Nelson, Yul Vasquez, Yul Vazquez
Director: Boaz Yakin
Rating: R
48.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Director Crystal Moselle based Skate Kitchen on NYC’s eponymous crew of young female skateboarders, who actually play fictionalized versions of themselves here. That real-life casting lends the film a documentary-esque quality: the girls’ bantering chemistry and die-hard loyalty feel warmly authentic, and the movie would be well worth a watch just to bask in this vibe alone.

The Skate Kitchen girls are an eclectic bunch, but what’s so refreshing — and therapeutic — about the film is that they’re also deeply, instinctively empathetic. These misfits don’t just tolerate but celebrate one another’s uniqueness and respect their differing boundaries (the way the girls and the movie treat shyness as a feature rather than a flaw to be resolved is particularly moving). What’s more, in its own low-key way, Skate Kitchen is an inspirational watch for its portrait of young women building the sanctuary they need themselves — not just in a largely male subculture but on a broader canvas, too. Rather than skulk anxiously on the sidelines, the girls use skating to carve out a space of their own in New York, a way to make the big, scary city feel warm and intimate. Amidst all the steezy ollies and clean rail grinds, these might just be the greatest tricks they pull off.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Actor: Ajani Russell, Darlene Violette, Dede Lovelace, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Hisham Tawfiq, Jaden Smith, Javier Nunez, John Palumbo, Kabrina Adams, Kobi Frumer, Nico Hiraga, Nina Moran, Rachelle Vinberg, Samuel Smith, Tashiana Washington, Taylor Gray, Thaddeus Daniels, Tom Bruno
Director: Crystal Moselle

Free Watching Options:

Watch Skate Kitchen (2018) on Amazon Prime for free
47.

The Unknown Country (2023)

It’s hard not to watch The Unknown Country and think of Nomadland: along with similarities in their Terrence Malick-inspired visuals, both films follow lone women seeking catharsis on the road as they grieve profound losses. But Morrisa Maltz’s debut feature is a decidedly lower-key, more spiritual affair — and is all the better for it.

The film is light on plot exposition, but it’s clear from her soft melancholy that Tana (Lily Gladstone) has set off on this road trip following a personal loss, a meandering journey that takes her from freezing Minnesota to Oglala Lakota reservations in South Dakota and down through Texas. Along the way, she reunites with loved ones and crosses paths with total strangers, all of whom are played by charismatic non-professional actors whose real life stories earn as much of the spotlight as Tana’s impressionistically shot journey. These moments of documentary, Gladstone’s naturalistic performance, Andrew Hajek’s contemplative images of lush American landscapes, and the film’s aversion to outright drama enrich the fictional elements by grounding them in earthy reality. There aren’t many more emotionally rewarding ways to spend 80-ish minutes than watching this poignant meditation on the tangled richness of human lives and the land we live on.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Drama
Actor: Devin Shangreaux, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Lily Gladstone, Raymond Lee, Richard Ray Whitman
Director: Morrisa Maltz
Rating: NR
46.

Adam (2009)

A simple and sweet movie about love, trust, and space.  Adam is a 30-something year old with Aspergers syndrome, this film is about how he navigates his way through loneliness and love and all things in between. It is both humorous and slightly heart-breaking, and will leave you feeling that way as well. Maybe the reason we all belong together is that we don't, and this movie is a beautiful examination of that.

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Drama, Romance
Actor: Adam LeFevre, Amy Irving, Andrew Patrick Ralston, Bill Dawes, Frankie Faison, Haviland Morris, Hugh Dancy, Hunter Reid, Jeff Hiller, John Rothman, Karina Arroyave, Luka Kain, Maddie Corman, Mark Doherty, Mark Linn-Baker, Mike Hodge, Peter Gallagher, Rose Byrne, Steffany Huckaby, Susan Porro, Terry Walters, Tyler Poelle, Ursula Abbott
Director: Max Mayer
Rating: PG-13
45.

Joe (2013)

Casting is Joe's strong suit, with the notable case of the character of a homeless alcoholic man played by a real-life homeless alcoholic man, as the abusive father of beyond-his-age, responsible 15-year-old Gary. It doesn't stop there either, because Nicolas Cage's performance is one of his career's best (so you can rest assured as far as that is concerned), and somehow still manages to be matched by Tye Sheridan's (as Gary). This added to the bleak and bold Southern-themed script make for a hard-hitting, moving, and compelling tale of growth, and how father figures fit into it. Joe is a proud entry to the genre of powerful, yet enjoyable father-figure dramas, right next to its equally impressive brother-movie Mud.

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Drama
Actor: Aaron Spivey-Sorrells, Adriene Mishler, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Brian Mays, David Gordon Green, Erin Elizabeth Reed, Gary Poulter, Heather Kafka, Jonny Mars, Lazaro Solares, Lico Reyes, Lynette Walden, Nicolas Cage, Robert Johnson, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Sue Rock, Tye Sheridan
Director: David Gordon Green
Rating: R
44.

Smoke Signals (1998)

To Hollywood's shame, it wasn’t until 1998 that a major feature made by Native American filmmakers was released. It was this charming indie gem that belatedly broke that new ground: based on author Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Smoke Signals retains the irreverent humor hinted at in its source material’s title while also being a genuinely heartfelt drama. Set across two cleverly interweaving timelines, it follows the fraught relationship between Victor and Thomas, two young men living on Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Reservation who are forever linked by tragedy: as a baby, Thomas was saved from the house fire that killed his parents by Victor’s father Arnold (a great Gary Farmer), who soon spiraled into alcoholism and abandoned his young son. When Arnold dies suddenly, then, the duo embark on a perspective-changing road trip to collect his ashes.

Thomas’ nerdy earnestness and happy-go-lucky personality have always gotten on the nerves of the stoic Victor — who’s eaten up by resentment at his father for leaving — but the trip brings the disparate duo together. Though the movie honors their meaningful journey with a serious dramatic focus, it’s also shot through with sharp humor satirizing clichés about Native American people — a tonal complexity that makes it uncommonly accomplished, even without the added value of its all-too-rare perspective.

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Actor: Adam Beach, Cody Lightning, Cynthia Geary, Elaine Miles, Evan Adams, Gary Farmer, Irene Bedard, John Trudell, Michael Greyeyes, Michelle St. John, Molly Cheek, Monique Mojica, Perrey Reeves, Robert Miano, Simon Baker, Tantoo Cardinal, Tom Skerritt
Director: Chris Eyre
Rating: PG-13
43.

The Florida Project (2017)

Every once in a while there are movies that expand the definition of quality film-making. This is one of those movies.

Here is an incredible, yet delicate film that follows three children from poor families who are stuck living in subpar motels. Their lives and friendships are portrayed with honesty and precise aesthetics. It’s a story that at first seems as plot-free as life itself.

It succeeds in capturing an innocence that is usually reserved to a child’s imagination: a precarious living condition full of adventures and fun. It’s hard to describe it beyond that; it’s the kind of film that must be seen to be fully understood.

And it ends on a very high note.

Our staff rating: 8.3/10
Genre: Drama
Actor: Aiden Malik, Andrew Romano, Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Caleb Landry Jones, Cecilia Quinan, Christopher Rivera, Edward Pagan, Gary B. Gross, Giovanni Rodriguez, Hannah Peterson, Jim R. Coleman, Josie Olivo, Karren Karagulian, Lauren O'Quinn, Macon Blair, Marisol Rivera, Mela Murder, Sabina Friedman-Seitz, Shih-Ching Tsou, Valeria Cotto, Willem Dafoe
Director: Sean Baker
Rating: R
42.

Tangerine (2015)

What’s great about this highly inventive film is that it doesn’t look like it was shot through three iPhone 5s. Instead of using shaky cameras and static shots, Tangerine glides us through saturated, orange-toned scenes that evoke the Los Angeles sunset. Launching director Sean Baker into prominence, Tangerine is an innovative film that, at heart, is a nuanced comedy about the trans sex worker community. Newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor run the show, and their performances create a vivid, electric drive that powers the whole movie. But it’s the quieter moments, the moments after betrayal, the moments of recovery, that make this movie truly special.

Our staff rating: 8.3/10
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Actor: Alla Tumanian, Ana Foxxx, Arsen Grigoryan, Chelcie Lynn, Chris Bergoch, Clu Gulager, Darren Dean, Graham Mackie, Ian Edwards, James Ransone, Jason Stuart, John Gulager, Josh Sussman, Julie Cummings, Karren Karagulian, Katja Kassin, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Luiza Nersisyan, Melanie Booth, Mickey O'Hagen, Mickey O'Hagan, Mya Taylor, Richard-Lael Lillard, Scott Krinsky, Scott Lyons, Shih-Ching Tsou
Director: Sean Baker
Rating: R

Free Watching Options:

Watch Tangerine (2015) on Hulu for free
41.

Mutt (2023)

Just based off its title, Mutt is already a film that tackles a state of in-between, and perhaps what makes it already precious is how honest and personal it can get, while remaining a good fictional story. This striking debut took Chilean-Serbian filmmaker Vuk Lungulov-Klotz more than six years to make, at least from the initial stages of the script as he was working through his own transition, how that felt and how he dealt with it in life and art. That said, Mutt is a film that stands on its own feet, without the need for any such context: the script, the performances, the frantic pacing of it, they are all top-level stuff. A generous, open film that has its trans protagonist be who they are, whatever that may be, and gives as much insight as it allows for curiosity and empathy. If Mutt is educational in any way, it is through it's apt storytelling and truthfulness that bleeds through the screen; its significance for trans cinema cannot be overstated, but it is also once of the most accomplished debuts of 2023.

Our staff rating: 8.3/10
Genre: Drama
Actor: Alejandro Goic, Cole Doman, Jari Jones, Jasai Chase-Owens, Lio Mehiel, MiMi Ryder, Sarah Herrman
Director: Vuk Lungulov-Klotz
Rating: NR

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