January hasn’t been a great — or even remotely good — month for films by and about women in theaters, as our January Film Preview proves. But tomorrow marks the beginning of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and there’s plenty of female-helmed and -centic films screening in Park City that are worth getting excited about — so many, in fact, that the projects detailed below are simply some of the highlights, and by no means should be read as an exhaustive list.
Novices and big-name directors alike will introduce to the world stories about real-life heroines in the form of eagle huntresses and abortion rights advocates, and fictional characters as varied as a Wall Street vet and, depending on your outlook, a young kidnapper or an unlikely protector.
Plot summaries courtesy of Sundance.
"Certain Women" – Written and Directed by Kelly Reichardt
What it’s about: The lives of three women (Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams) intersect in small-town America, where each is imperfectly blazing a trail.
Why we’re interested: "Certain Women" marks Reichardt’s third collaboration with Williams, and both of their previous projects — 2008’s "Wendy and Lucy" and 2010’s "Meek’s Cutoff" — delivered stellar performances by Williams and engaging portraits of complicated female protagonists. Reichardt’s latest and most mainstream feature, "Night Moves," won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Deauville American Film Festival and received solid reviews. We’re on board to see anything Reichardt directs, but this star-studded female cast has us especially excited for "Certain Women."
"Sophie and the Rising Sun" – Written and Directed by Maggie Greenwald
What it’s about: In a small Southern town in the autumn of 1941, Sophie’s (Julianne Nicholson) lonely life is transformed when an Asian man (Takashi Yamaguchi) arrives under mysterious circumstances. Their love affair becomes the lightning rod for long-buried conflicts that erupt in bigotry and violence with the outbreak of World War ll.
Why we’re interested: Underrated gem Julianne Nicholson is finally front and center in a movie, and we couldn’t be happier to see the always excellent supporting actress in a starring role. She’s a chameleon who has wowed us repeatedly, especially for her work in "Masters of Sex."
Interracial relationships are rarely portrayed on the big screen, and from the sounds of it, this tale of forbidden romance will lead to big questions about love, race and prejudice — questions that bore heavy significance in the ’40s and still do today. As writer-director Maggie Greenwald commented to us, "I’d like [audiences] to think about how unfortunately relevant this story is. Despite the intense racism that still pervades our society, we’ve become more accepting of interracial relationships. However, as a society [we] are still afraid of outsiders or people we believe are different. Our government did horrible things to Japanese-Americans 70 years ago, yet the same conversation is going on today about Muslim-Americans."
"Equity" – Directed by Meera Menon; Written by Amy Fox
What it’s about: A female investment banker (Anna Gunn, "Breaking Bad"), fighting to get a promotion at her competitive Wall Street firm, leads a controversial tech IPO in the post-financial-crisis world, where regulations are tight but pressure to bring in big money remains high.
Why we’re interested: As hilarious as "The Big Short" was and as much as we enjoyed it, we’re long overdue for Wall Street movies that feature women prominently. With "Equity," we’ll finally see a female character embroiled in the high-stakes world of stocks. Even better, that investment banker will be played by Anna Gunn, who underwent her own enthralling transformation on "Breaking Bad" from Skyler White, wife to Mr. Chips, to wife of Scarface. It’s time for Gunn to emerge post-Walter White as a leading lady carrying her own movie.
Director Meera Menon told Women and Hollywood, "Creating a portrait of a female point of view in an environment that we’ve pretty much exclusively understood through a male perspective ("Wall Street," "Wolf of Wall Street," "Arbitrage," etc.) was beyond exciting to me — it felt downright necessary." Seconded.
"Tallulah" – Written and Directed by Sian Heder
What it’s about: A rootless young woman (Ellen Page) takes a toddler from a wealthy, negligent mother and passes the baby off as her own in an effort to protect her. This decision connects and transforms the lives of three very different women.
Why we’re interested: "Tallulah" has great buzz. Sian Heder’s directorial debut has already been scooped up by Netflix prior to its world premiere at the fest. Netflix reportedly spent somewhere in the mid-seven figures range to secure worldwide streaming video-on-demand rights to the drama. We’d see Ellen Page in almost anything, but especially the work of a female writer-director who previously worked on "Orange Is the New Black." And the story for "Tallulah" has us intrigued. In an upcoming interview with Women and Hollywood, Heder explained that her experiences working as a nanny in high-end hotels inspired the film’s storyline. She was "so disturbed by the erratic behavior of a particular mother" that she "seriously considered taking off with the kid."
"Newtown" – Directed by Kim A. Snyder and "Under the Gun" – Directed by Stephanie Soechtig
What "Newtown" is about: After joining the ranks of a growing club no one wants to belong to, the people of Newtown, Connecticut, weave an intimate story of resilience. This film traces the aftermath of the worst mass shooting of schoolchildren in American history as the traumatized community finds a new sense of purpose.
What "Under the Gun" is about: The Sandy Hook massacre was considered a watershed moment in the national debate on gun control, but the body count at the hands of gun violence has only increased. Through the lens of the victims’ families, as well as pro-gun advocates, we examine why our politicians have failed to act.
Why we’re interested: Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, you simply must concede that what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 was tragic and beyond unacceptable. These two docs investigating American life post-Sandy Hook are vitally important. They pose — and try to answer — hard questions and offer multi-perspectives on gun control. The country is in the midst of a gun-related crisis, and it’s important to ask why shootings of this kind happen and what can be done to prevent this grotesque history from repeating itself.
"The Sandy Hook massacre was very personal to me and really demonstrated that these mass shootings can happen anywhere," "Under the Gun" director Stephanie Soechtig told us. She grew up "a stone’s throw from Newtown." She elaborated, "I had my son shortly after that shooting, and it felt like I was bringing him into a very different world than the world before 12/14. So I started researching the gun violence epidemic and was amazed at the way our country was approaching the issue. I wanted to try to tell this story with a holistic approach and in a way that might break through some of the ‘noise’ that has surrounded this issue for so long. The debate over guns and gun laws has always seemed like a very black-and-white issue, but I was really intrigued to explore whether there was any common ground."
"Sonita" – Directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami
What it’s about: If 18-year-old Sonita had a say, Michael Jackson and Rihanna would be her parents and she’d be a rapper who tells the story of Afghan women and their fates as child brides. She finds out that her family plans to sell her to an unknown husband for $9,000.
Why we’re interested: Rapping and girls’ empowerment connect in a profound way in this doc. Dare not to be moved by her rap for her school friend, who is about to be sold by her family into marriage. The film, and Sonita’s story, make a strong statement against child marriage. The doc’s director, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, shared what motivated her to make the film in an upcoming interview with Women and Hollywood. "I met Sonita through my cousin, who is a social worker and was working in [a] nonprofit to support child laborers," she explained. "Sonita’s ambitious dreams and her self confidence — in spite of [the] horrible situation she was living in — drew me to her story."
"Trapped" – Directed by Dawn Porter
What it’s about: American abortion clinics are in a fight for survival. Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws are increasingly being passed by states. Advocates purport to ensure women’s health and safety, but opponents believe the real purpose of these laws is to outlaw abortion.
Why we’re interested: The battle over reproductive rights is captured in this doc, which reminds us that while Roe v. Wade might be the law of the land (right now), the lack of access and the new TRAP laws are undermining women’s reproductive freedoms. "Trapped" helmer Dawn Porter told Women and Hollywood that she hoped that after seeing the film, viewers realize that "they cannot be complacent." Porter said she loved what one of the clinic owners said about how "no one ever thinks they are going to need an abortion," and she wants people "to think about what they would do if the clinics around them were closed."
"The Eagle Huntress"
What it’s about: Step aside, Daenerys and Katniss — Aisholpan is a real-life role model on an epic journey in a faraway world. Follow this 13-year-old nomadic Mongolian girl as she battles to become the first female to hunt with a golden eagle, challenging 2,000 years of male-dominated history.
Why we’re interested: "The Eagle Huntress" beautifully combines soaring landscapes with girl power. Aisholpan the Eagle Huntress breaks through the Mongolian glass ceiling and now, thankfully, there’s no going back — only onwards.
"Cameraperson" – Directed by Kirsten Johnson
What it’s about: By exposing her role behind the camera, Johnson reaches into the vast trove of footage that she has shot over decades around the world. What emerges is a visually bold memoir and a revelatory interrogation into the power of the camera.
Why we’re interested: It’s not often that you see a documentary memoir, and even less often do you see one made by a woman. "Cameraperson," spanning decades and continents, promises to shed light on the experiences of a woman working in a male-dominated field — so male-dominated that the person with her title is usually referred to as a "cameraman." Stories about women travelling are also relatively scarce, with notable exceptions such as "Wild" and "Eat, Pray, Love," so we’re also looking forward to an exploration of what travel can mean to an individual and how it can influence her life.
"Maya Angelou and Still I Rise" – Co-Directed by Rita Coburn Whack
What it’s about: Iconic writer, poet, performer and activist Maya Angelou overcame the Jim Crow South and devastating abuse to become one of our culture’s greatest voices. Rare footage and never-before-seen photos unveil a public and personal life that intersected with some of the most profound moments in recent American history.
Why we’re interested: Maya Angelou is one of the most important, beloved cultural figures in recent American history, and we welcome any and all opportunities to learn more about this powerhouse poet and thinker. In an upcoming interview with Women and Hollywood, co-director Rita Coburn Whack noted that she first read Angelou as an adolescent: "In that moment I identified Maya Angelou as one of the women in my community and embraced the pain, the truth and the beauty of our story." This is a story that needs to be told again and again.
"Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper" – Directed by Liz Garbus
What it’s about: Gloria Vanderbilt and her son Anderson Cooper each tell the story of their past and present, their loves and losses, and reveal how some family stories have the tendency to repeat themselves in the most unexpected ways.
Why we’re interested: If you think you know about Gloria Vanderbilt, think again. Liz Garbus, the Oscar-nominated director behind "What Happened, Miss Simone?," shows a different side to the artist, actress, author and heiress in this intimate portrait of Vanderbilt and her son, CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Garbus found plenty of tresures after digging through Vanderbilt’s archive, which she told Women and Hollywood "made Marilyn Monroe’s archive look tame." Garbus describes the doc as "a film about a son trying to understand his mother’s past. The mother happens to have had one of the most storied pasts in recent memory. It’s a story about love and loss, about regret and redemption, about art and history."