Female Directors Are Making a Splash
Female directors had a breakthrough last year at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, particularly in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Snagging eight of the 16 available slots, female-centric storylines and casts made a splash and won several awards (including the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award for Lake Bell and her smart directorial debut “In A World”). While this shouldn’t really be considered shocking (women have been making amazing films for decades now), the berth of female-led films at Sundance sadly does not reflect what really goes on in Hollywood at large — where these same women often struggle to get the funding and distribution from the big studios who are more than happy to constantly churn out “boy movies” from the likes of Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler types.
"We live in a sexist world and Hollywood is at the heart of it," says Rory Kennedy, director of “Last Days in Vietnam,” at this year’s annual Women In Film panel. Valerie Veatch, director/producer of "Love Child," agreed. "The financing structure of Hollywood films is also part of the problem. Women not playing nine rounds of golf stops us from having access to the money, to the hedge funds and other financing," she says.
This year, the count for women directors in the U.S. Dramatic competition dropped to four; however, both female-directed and female-centric films flourished throughout Sundance as a whole, including three in the all-important “Premieres” category. And a new study commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles released this week found that female filmmakers who participate in the Sundance Institute's feature and documentary development labs succeed in equal numbers to men. As long as Sundance continues to pay attention to these numbers and work to improve them, they’re still lightyears ahead of the film industry at large.
On day nine of the festival, we’re rounding up seven of our favorite female-directed films you may want to check out this year. Some will premiere in major theaters, others only in indie theaters in big towns. But all should be available on DVD and Netflix eventually, most this year.
Inspired by the award winning Web series “The Slope,” writer/director Desiree Akhavan stars as Shirin in her debut feature, the all too familiar archetype of the young and hip Brooklynite. What separates her from the “Girls” of the borough is her Persian heritage, which she attempts to marry with the bisexuality she hides from her parents. Fresh off a painful breakup, Shirin flitters from one clichéd identity to another as she tries to make her ex jealous while attempting to please her family and the students at the grade school where she works.
The sexually frank film wins at painting the identity crisis that often follows women into their early thirties and the painful bitterness that results from messy breakups. I laughed, I cried, I nodded knowingly. Brooklyn address or not, you likely will too.
“Hellion” debuted at Sundance in 2012 as a short film, and the crowd reaction reached a fever-pitch. In a move that’s common at film festivals, the positive reaction inspired writer/director Kat Candler to turn it into a full-fledged feature length. Snagging Aaron Paul for the title role proved a smart move, as crowds maxed out the largest theatre at Sundance to see the bright star, fresh off the enormously popular and groundbreaking “Breaking Bad.”
The warts-and-all film centers on Jacob, a 13 year old, who lost his mother to an unnamed accident and his father Hollis to a six-pack-a-night habit. Left with watching over his younger brother, Wes, Jacob pulls the 6 year old into his delinquent behavior, eventually landing Wes in the care of Child Protective Services. Desperate to get him back, Hollis and Jacob are forced to confront their demons and clean up their acts.
While the movie isn’t always easy to watch, its story is beautifully acted, shot and told. At the Q&A after the film, Candler told the audience that she’s come to Sundance for years to enjoy movies and was moved to tears at the reaction to her first feature. Successfully making the jump from shorts to feature length, she also likely knew this was only the beginning — much like Oscar winners usually go on to much more prestigious careers after their wins, filmmakers who premiere at Sundance often continue to come back to the festival year after year.
While not an all-around critical darling (US Weekly called the film, starring Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn, “hopelessly boring”), I enjoyed it and think you might too. Your own attitude on the movie will likely depend on your appreciation of folk music, low-key indie dramas and your thoughts on live music in film in general (not to be confused with musicals). Paging “Once” fans! Variety mirrored my own reaction when they wrote of the film, “With its sensitive original score, true-chemistry central perfs and refreshing lack of irony, first-timer Kate Barker-Froyland’s low-key musical romance ought to send young emo crowds swooning en masse.”
Hathaway stars as Franny, who at the start of the film has been in Morocco researching Bedouin tribes for her PhD in anthropology. She is called home after her brother Henry, whom she fought with recently about his obsession with music and lack of “real life” focus, has an accident that places him in a coma. In an attempt to feel connected to her brother, she attends a concert by his favorite artist, James Forester. What happens next changes the way she sees her brother, music and ultimately, herself.
The first feature film from shorts writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland, “Song One” attains the all-important quiet chemistry amongst its leads that has you going along for the ride and buzzing once it’s over.
Every year at Sundance, or any film festival for that matter, word spreads fast within the first few days about any breakout, must-see films. The movie I heard about most often during that time was “Obvious Child,” and upon viewing, it’s easy to see that it’s earned its praise.
The director, Gillian Robespierre, has written and directed several short films, including standout “Chunk” in 2006, which follows an overweight teen attending fat camp. Another film adapted from a short, “Obvious Child” was selected for the 2011 IFP Emerging Narrative and Emerging Visions labs, 2011 Rooftop Films/Eastern Effects Equipment Grant and a 2013 Tribeca All Access grand.
The film follows Donna Stern, a 27-year-old Brooklyn comedian whose lewd but warmhearted wit is a winner amongst the audiences who come to see her. After getting unceremoniously dumped, Donna channels her moping into some light stalking, which plunges her into performing a sad-sack set of breakup vengeance and Holocaust jokes. The pitiful night ends with a drunken hookup and, weeks later, a pregnancy.
It may not sound like it from this description, but the serious subject matter yields tons of laughs along with all of its heart. Jenny Slate scores playing Donna, and the entire experience is both fun and satisfying. The flick has been picked up domestically, so it’ll be easy to see this one in theaters.
As a girl from West Virginia, nothing at the festival moved me this year quite like “Little Accidents.” For director Sara Colangelo’s first feature film, she worked with familiar material, as she adapted her 2010 breakout short of the same name. Set in a small town in West Virginia, Colangelo showcases a host of characters dealing with the disaster-prone world of Appalachian coal mining, zeroing in on the lives of three very different inhabitants. Her main skill is her ability to really connect to what’s happening to the people of West Virginia, a poor state that’s often forget about in mainstream media. She works hard to represent them well, never falling prey to the “poor porn” often depicted in stories from this area of the country.
In exploring the greater issue of the intricacies of small-town social order, the cast and director are able to illustrate the humanity of connection, despite where we fall on the social and monetary line. The script was selected for the 2011 Sundance Screenwriters and Directors labs, and Colangelo’s short got her named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2010.
Somewhat of a “Sundance darling,” writer/director Lynn Shelton has screened her feature length films at the fest in 2009, 2012 and 2013. The 2009 film “Humpday” won a Special Jury Prize and the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards. She is also an alum of Sundance’s wacky stepsister, Slamdance.
The quickest way to sell her new film is to say that if you like Shelton’s other movies (“Your Sister’s Sister,” “Touchy Feely”), you can pretty much guarantee you’ll love “Laggies.” Not acquainted with Ms. Shelton? “Laggies” is very much in the spirit of “Frances Ha,” and if you haven’t seen that one either, you’ve just racked up quite the movie list!
Packed with an awesome cast, including Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Ellie Kemper, Jeff Garlin and Mark Webber, “Laggies” follows 28-year-old Megan (Knightley), a young woman way too content with her mediocre existence. Working as a sign flipper for her father’s accounting company, she watches as her high school friends get married, score hot jobs and generally move on with their lives. So when her high school boyfriend proposes out of the blue, Megan has to make a decision about which path she wants to take. It’s the perfect coming-of-age for those of us who took a little longer to grow up.
Infinitely Polar Bear
Mark Twain told writers to “write what you know,” a seemingly simple bit of advice that still seems to allude many writers searching for that perfect hook or story. But it’s often when we examine our own lives that we find that we’ve all already got plenty of material to work with, obvious or not. Writer/director Maya Forbes, a veteran writer for TV in LA, makes her directorial debut with a film completely lifted from her childhood. To say it works would be an understatement.
Flashing back to 1978, we see a normal-enough family struggling to hold it together. Cameron, a bipolar father, has hit rock bottom and is unable to hold a job, while his wife Maggie, fails to make ends meet without a college education. Desperate to find a solution, Maggie accepts a scholarship to pursue her MBA in New York and leaves her daughters, Faith and Amelia, in Boston with their on-the-mend dad. As you can imagine, what results is a very interesting 18 months. But because Forbes based this on her own life and bipolar father, the entire subject is treated with total respect and sweetness. It’s real life, but so well told it still feels like a movie.