If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with several arthouse theaters, May is a veritable banquet of indie and foreign gems by and about women.
And if your choices are limited to the multiplex, you can still watch Angelina Jolie vamp on the thin line between good and bad as the titular anti-heroine in Maleficent, penned by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King). And if the odds are in Elizabeth Banks’ favor, the Hunger Games co-star will join Jolie by traipsing down the road to comic tastelessness in Walk of Shame.
As far as summer counterprogramming goes, Hollywood offers a couple of truly fantastic, proudly feminist films this summer: Belle, We Are the Best!, and Obvious Child. The first two opens in May, while the modernized rom com Obvious Child opens June 6. We at Women and Hollywood are ardent devotees of Belle, director Amma Asante’s Austenesque romantic drama about an 18th-century British noblewoman of mixed race. The Swedish import We Are the Best! (which I caught at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston) is a gut-achingly hilarious, tectonically moving coming-of-age tale about three 13-year-old girls in 1980s Stockholm determined to prove that punk isn’t dead by starting their own yell-and-bang band.
The upcoming month also marks the theatrical premieres of several long-anticipated projects from women directors. Indie royalty Kelly Reichardt’s fifth feature, a thriller about three radical environmentalists preparing to blow up a dam, finally makes its debut. Gia Coppola’s highly regarded Palo Alto, a trio of interlocking stories about suburban teenagers getting into trouble, could be the nascent filmmaker’s Virgin Suicides. Megan Griffith’s Lucky Them offers a truly fascinating story, based on real events, about a music journalist played by Toni Collette searching for a faded superstar — who happens to be her ex-boyfriend. And festival favorite Beneath the Harvest Sky, co-directed by Gita Pullapilly, will finally share its story of two teenage pals suddenly unable to trust each other when one of them joins the family trade of smuggling drugs across the border.
Another young woman makes a life-changing trip in Ida, about a Polish girl in the postwar years about to take up the habit when she discovers that her parents were Jewish victims of the Nazis. Another Polish native, played by Marion Cotillard, arrives at Ellis Island, where she is quickly taken advantage of by violent criminals in The Immigrant. Taking place a few decades later is Decoding Annie Parker, which follows a three-time breast cancer patient (Samantha Morton) and the only doctor (Helen Hunt) who believes the patient’s intuition that breast cancer has a genetic basis.
On the nonfiction front, producer Katie Couric and director Stephanie Soechtig argue that sugar is the new tobacco in Fed Up. Another famous producer, Ricki Lake, and documentarian Dana Ben-Ari explore the triumphs and hazards of breastfeeding in Breastmilk. The Rescuers goes much further afield to Rwanda, where anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire and Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert travel to central Africa to help make sense of the killing campaigns of the past and find solutions to prevent future atrocities.
All descriptions below are from Rotten Tomatoes unless otherwise indicated.
Belle – Directed by Amma Asante; Written by Misan Sagay
Belle is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). Raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), Dido’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her status prevents her from the traditions of noble social standing. While her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) chases suitors for marriage, Dido is left on the sidelines wondering if she will ever find love. After meeting an idealistic young vicar’s son bent on changing society, he and Dido help shape Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.
Walk of Shame
The outrageous comedy Walk of Shame stars Elizabeth Banks as a resourceful reporter whose one-night stand with a handsome stranger (James Marsden) leaves her stranded the next morning in downtown Los Angeles without a phone, car, ID, or money — and only 8 hours before the most important job interview of her career.
Beneath the Harvest Sky – Co-Directed and Co-Written by Gita Pullapilly
Casper (Emory Cohen) and Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) have been fiercely loyal friends since childhood. Desperate for a way out of their quiet town on the Maine-Canada border, the boys make a pact to pool their earnings on a car and hit the road. But when Casper is drawn into drug smuggling with his outlaw father (Aidan Gillen) to pay his share, their friendship is pushed to the brink and adult choices forced on them all too soon. (Tribeca Film Festival)
Decoding Annie Parker
Based on true events, Decoding Annie Parker tells the life-affirming story of two remarkable women; the irrepressible Annie Parker (Samantha Morton), a three-time cancer survivor, and the geneticist Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt), whose discovery of the breast cancer BRCA gene mutation is considered one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.
From acclaimed director Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) comes Ida, a moving and intimate drama about a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who, on the verge of taking her vows, discovers a dark family secret dating from the terrible years of the Nazi occupation. 18-year old Anna (stunning newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), a sheltered orphan raised in a convent, is preparing to become a nun when the Mother Superior insists she first visit her sole living relative. Naive, innocent Anna soon finds herself in the presence of her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a worldly and cynical Communist Party insider, who shocks her with the declaration that her real name is Ida and her Jewish parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation. This revelation triggers a heart-wrenching journey into the countryside, to the family house and into the secrets of the repressed past, evoking the haunting legacy of the Holocaust and the realities of postwar Communism. In this beautifully directed film, Pawlikowski returns to his native Poland for the first time in his career to confront some of the more contentious issues in the history of his birthplace. Powerfully written and eloquently shot, Ida is a masterly evocation of a time, a dilemma, and a defining historical moment; Ida is also personal, intimate, and human. The weight of history is everywhere, but the scale falls within the scope of a young woman learning about the secrets of her own past. This intersection of the personal with momentous historic events makes for what is surely one of the most powerful and affecting films of the year.
The M Word
Writer-director Henry Jaglom gives us a bracingly funny, fearless and fast-paced human comedy about yet another vital issue facing all women at a certain critical turning point in their lives. Set in a struggling Los Angeles television station threatened by economic downturn, possible in-house graft and massive job loss, Tanna Frederick plays Moxie, a children’s TV show actress who unexpectedly turns into a Joan of Arc (with the passion of Norma Rae) when she finds herself leading an extraordinary band of rebelling women demanding their rights as they anxiously face uncertain futures after their new boss (Michael Imperioli) and his second-in-command (Robert Hallak) arrive from New York on a devastating cost-cutting mission. All of Moxie’s personal and professional assumptions and those of her long-time boyfriend (Corey Feldman) are turned upside-down as her mother (Frances Fisher), her two aunts (Mary Crosby and Eliza Roberts), and her stepfather (Gregory Harrison), join with dozens of her fellow female office workers to illuminate the struggles, challenges and joys of what is still, in some circles, referred to as “the change of life.”
Breastmilk (doc) – Directed by Dana Ben-Ari
With unexpected humor, with an unflinching camera, with some guilt and some pain, this film takes the unusual risk of examining what breast milk truly means. We are often told that breast milk is better. Better for babies, better for mothers, better for nutrition, health, well-being, and society. Many accept this and yet there are still very few women who succeed in breastfeeding exclusively for the recommended six months and beyond. What would it take to change?
Palo Alto – Written and Directed by Gia Coppola
Shy, sensitive April (Emma Roberts) is the class virgin — a popular soccer player and frequent babysitter for her single-dad coach, Mr. B. (James Franco). Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is an introspective artist whose best friend and sidekick Fred (Nat Wolff) is an unpredictable live wire with few filters or boundaries. While April negotiates a dangerous affair with Mr. B., and Teddy performs community service for a DUI — secretly carrying a torch for April, who may or may not share his affection — Fred seduces Emily (Zoe Levin), a promiscuous loner who seeks validation through sexual encounters. One high school party bleeds into another as April and Teddy finally acknowledge their mutual affection, and Fred’s escalating recklessness spirals into chaos.
Mom’s Night Out – Co-Written by Andrea Gyertson Nasfell
All Allyson (Sarah Drew) and her friends want is a peaceful, grown-up evening of dinner and conversation — a long-needed moms’ night out. But in order to enjoy high heels, adult conversation and food not served in a paper bag, they need their husbands to watch the kids for three hours. What could go wrong?
Fed Up (doc) – Directed by Stephanie Soechtig
For the past 30 years, everything we thought we knew about food and exercise is dead wrong. Fed Up is the film the food industry doesn’t want you to see. From producer Katie Couric and director Stephanie Soechtig, Fed Up will change the way you eat forever.
The Rescuers (doc)
The film traces the journey of Stephanie Nyombayire, a young Rwandan anti-genocide activist who teams up with Sir Martin Gilbert, the renowned Holocaust historian, to travel across 15 countries and three continents interviewing survivors and descendants of the diplomats who rescued tens of thousands of Jews from the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi death camps. While Nyombayire embarks upon this quest in an effort to uncover potential solutions for the ongoing genocide in Darfur and elsewhere, what emerges from their journey is more a testament to the ways in which the inherent good in the human spirit can trump institutional evil no matter what the circumstance. (Palm Springs International Film Festival)
Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return – Co-Written by Randi Barnes
Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return is a 3D-animated musical based on the adventure books by Roger Stanton Baum, the great-grandson of L. Frank Baum. A continuation of one of the world’s most popular and beloved fairy tales, Legends of Oz finds Dorothy (Lea Michele) waking to post-tornado Kansas, only to be whisked back to Oz to try to save her old friends the Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), the Lion (Jim Belushi), the Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer) and Glinda (Bernadette Peters) from a devious new villain, the Jester (Martin Short). Wiser the owl (Oliver Platt), Marshal Mallow (Hugh Dancy), China Princess (Megan Hilty) and Tugg the tugboat (Patrick Stewart) join Dorothy on her latest magical journey through the colorful landscape of Oz to restore order and happiness to Emerald City. Set to the tunes of Academy Award-nominated singer/songwriter Bryan Adams, Legends of Oz marks a charming, family-friendly return to the Oz franchise.
Starry-eyed teenager Camilla Swanson (Allie Macdonald) wants to follow in her mother’s (Minnie Driver) footsteps and become a Broadway diva, but she’s stuck working in the kitchen of a snobby performing arts camp. Determined to change her destiny, she sneaks in to audition for the summer showcase and lands a lead role in the play, but just as rehearsals begin, blood starts to spill, and Camilla soon finds herself terrified by the horror of musical theatre.
In James Gray’s The Immigrant, Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister sail to New York from their native Poland in search of a new start and the American dream. When they reach Ellis Island, doctors discover that Magda (Angela Sarafyan) is ill, and the two women are separated. Ewa is released onto the mean streets of Manhattan while her sister is quarantined. Alone, with nowhere to turn and desperate to reunite with Magda, Ewa quickly falls prey to Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a charming but wicked man who takes her in and forces her into prostitution. The arrival of Orlando (Jeremy Renner) — a dashing stage magician who is also Bruno’s cousin — restores her self-belief and hopes for a brighter future, becoming her only chance to escape the nightmare in which she finds herself.
Blended – Co-Written by Clare Sera
After a disastrous blind date, single parents Lauren and Jim agree on only one thing: they never want to see each other again. But when they each sign up separately for a fabulous family vacation with their kids, they are all stuck sharing a suite at a luxurious African safari resort for a week in Blended, the third comedy collaboration between stars Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.
Maleficent – Written by Linda Woolverton
Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant Aurora (Elle Fanning). As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.
Night Moves – Directed and Co-Written by Kelly Reichardt
Night Moves, the fifth feature film from acclaimed filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, is the story of three radical environmentalists coming together to execute the most intense protest of their lives: the explosion of a hydroelectric dam — the very source and symbol of the energy-sucking, resource-devouring industrial culture they despise. Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) is a former Marine, radicalized by tours of duty overseas. His life in the military is behind him, but at heart he remains the same reckless alpha male he always was, eager for adventure, excited by the prospect of mayhem and destruction. Dena (Dakota Fanning) is a high-society dropout, sickened by the consumer economy into which she was born. She’s moved west and cut ties with her family, edging ever deeper into radical politics. And Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), their leader, is a self-made militant, devoted to the protection of the Earth by any means necessary. A son of the middle class who works on an organic farm, he’s an intensely private person by nature and may have the deepest convictions of them all. Night Moves is a tale of suspense and a meditation on the consequences of political extremism. When do legitimate convictions truly demand illegal behaviors? What happens to a person’s idealism when they find their back against the wall?
Lucky Them – Directed by Megan Griffiths; Co-Written by Emily Wachtel
Megan Griffiths’s rueful comedy Lucky Them stars Toni Collette as Ellie Klug, a beloved rock journalist who has been covering the Seattle music scene for decades. When her boss (Oliver Platt) orders her to look into the mysterious disappearance of a one-time superstar on the scene, who also happened to be romantically involved with Ellie, the jaded writer joins forces with a wannabe documentary filmmaker (Thomas Haden Church) to hunt down the singer who may or may not have killed himself. Complicating matters, Ellie finds herself falling in love with a young singer/songwriter who is looking for his big break.
We Are the Best!
We Are the Best! is Lukas Moodysson’s adaptation of his wife Coco’s graphic novel about three young misfits growing up in early ’80s Stockholm. Pixieish, mohawk-sporting Klara (Mira Grosin) and her best friend Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) are 13-year-old rebels looking for a cause. Despite having no instruments — or discernible musical talent — the two put all their energy into forming an all-girl punk band, recruiting their shy, classical guitar-playing schoolmate Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) as the third wheel. With tender affection for his young characters and the period in which his film is set, Moodysson paints an ebullient and sharply observant portrait of DIY spirit and growing up different.
Elena (doc) – Directed by Petra Costa
Elena, a young Brazilian woman, moved to New York with the same dream her mother had: to become a film actress. She left behind a childhood spent in hiding during the years of the military dictatorship. She also left Petra, her beloved seven-year-old sister. Over time, Elena’s calls and letters home trailed off, until one day they stopped entirely. Years later, Petra also becomes an actress and heads to New York in search of her destiny, but also in search of her troubled sister. She remembers and imagines Elena through home movies, letters, a diary, and dreamlike sequences full of longing. As she tries to unravel the mystery of her sister, their stories overlap and begin to blur, challenging us to discover truths about forgiveness, loss, catharsis, and love. (Press materials)