As readers of Women & Hollywood, you’re fully aware of the bleak statistics concerning women working in the film industry, onscreen and behind-the-scenes. In spite of those incredible odds, two female-led films have outranked most of their male-led and gender-neutral competition during this year’s film festival circuit so far. Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, about a Brooklynite standup comedian, was an audience favorite at Sundance, and after being picked up by A24 mid-festival, has been hitting the circuit pretty hard (SXSW, ND/NF, SIFF, and more). Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation, about a women-filled Israeli military office, won The Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature and The Nora Ephron Prize (for a grand total of $50,000 in festival winnings) at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Both films are about women, starring women, and written and directed by women, yet have managed to resonate with gender equal audiences and a statistically male-skewed critical community. Now why is that?
At first glance, Obvious Child and Zero Motivation are two very different films. One is in English and set in Brooklyn, the other is in Hebrew and set in southern Israel. One has a single central narrative, the other ties three together focusing on two lead characters. One is a romantic comedy with job struggles thrown in and the other is an office comedy with a few romantic crises tacked on. Obvious Child began as a short and was later developed into a feature thanks to support from the indie film community and Kickstarter. Zero Motivation was accepted into both the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Sundance Directors Lab. Robespierre was a first-time filmmaker (the original short being her official debut) whereas Lavie worked in Israeli television and directed the unrelated short Sliding Flora that played at over 40 film festivals worldwide (including Berlinale). Simply, neither film or film production lines up with a set formula.
Without going into technical speak about filmmaking or taking an analytical look at trends in the indie box office, the success of these two films may simply boil down to both tapping into an under heard yet very popular voice and doing so authentically while still entertaining thereby undercutting any purported threat. The voice is the woman-child, or “in between” female protagonist, grappling with unwanted adult responsibilities and insecure with her own identity, and the threat is promoting female agency within a female-unfriendly industry and in a world where people still publicly decry/deny feminism.
Though the man-child has been plastered on the big screen (from The Little Tramp to Benjamin Braddock to Judd Apatow’s latest incarnation), the woman-child rarely makes it up there. Generally peered at through the almighty male gaze, she is either secluded onto an easily toppled romantic pedestal (The Philadelphia Story, Annie Hall, (500) Days of Summer) or tossed aside into the supporting category of awkward unsexual female friends (epitomized by Judy Garland’s character in the Andy Hardy movies). Being young women with creative inklings, Robespierre and Lavie noticed that their voices were not being heard and looked to their and their friends’ experiences to explore relatable themes and build credible female characters, thereby breathing life into the woman-child with her foibles, quirks and all.
While Donna Stern (Jenny Slate in Obvious Child) works as a bookseller by day in order to fund her fledgeling stand up comedy career at night (her act being littered with self-deprecation and references to various unseemly bodily functions), Daffie (Nelly Tagar in Zero Motivation) works as a “Paper & Shredding NCO” in order to fulfill her mandatory service in the Israeli Army while hoping to transfer from the rural military base to Tel Aviv and daydreaming of walking the city streets in stiletto heels. Frustrated with her situation, Donna vents and overshares in her standup act which leads to a messy break-up which in turn leads to sloppy drunken rebound sex which then leads to an unwanted pregnancy. Also frustrated, Daffie writes letter after letter complaining to the head offices which leads to an implosive confrontation with her sole friend at the base which in turn leads her to decide to enroll in officer training (leaving her friend behind). Neither like to work or struggle (who does?), but after a bit of whining and a few mishaps, both buck up rather than buckle down under pressure. By the end, both face the fact that they have adult responsibilities and that their choices lead to consequences beyond wish fulfillment.
Even more refreshing, both films explore relationships between women without falling into degrading cliches or over-idealized “sisterhood” situations. Rather than having the “Go get ’em!” best friend and overtly supportive mother, Donna has wizened Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) doling out curt one-liners alongside heartfelt advice and a business professor mother (Polly Draper) who, in spite of repeatedly chastising Donna’s life choices, turns out to be the best shoulder to cry on when Donna needs it most.
As for Daffie, she has friend-turned-frenemy Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and they both have an unspoken camaraderie amongst the other female soldiers, consisting mostly of gruff words and understanding glances. Daffie and Zohar begin as best friends, saving bus seats for each other and playing round after round of Minesweeper, but their friendship falls apart after Daffie discovers that Zohar isn’t supportive of Daffie’s Tel Aviv plans, viewing the possible move as abandoning her. After Daffie leaves, Zohar finds herself in a sticky situation with a visiting male soldier, but one of her office mates, an unfriendly Russian more involved in reading novels than office work, comes to the rescue. None of these women strictly rely on their female friends and acquaintances, but they would all be in much worse shape without them.
On the other hand, men aren’t in the picture all that much, outside of a few frustrating romantic interests. Funnily enough, Daffie, Zohar and Donna all stumble on romance during personal low points, to varied results. Clad in an unflatteringly bulky military green coat and sniveling with tears and snot from her latest emotional meltdown, Daffie stumbles upon a hunky soldier who encourages her to pursue moving to Tel Aviv, even saying they could meet up there. Little comes from this interaction outside of a self-esteem boost for Daffie and some envy from Zohar, who had been harboring a bit of a crush on said soldier. Later on, the other girls poke fun at Zohar’s sexual inexperience, enough so that Zohar decides that she wants to lose her virginity as soon as possible. While on guard duty and reeking of desperation, Zohar spots a nice looking guy and blurts asking him out on a date. One thing leads to another and then another and then she discovers that things are moving a bit too quickly and that he’s not that nice after all.
After bombing her latest stand-up gig (getting more concerned looks than laughs) while still reeling from being dumped by her cheating boyfriend (in a bar bathroom, no less), Donna hits up the bar and bumps into clean-cut, totally not her type, Max (Jake Lacy). The two hit it off well enough to end up back at his place for some rompy pompy, in which Donna remembers a condom being present but not whether it was used. Weeks pass and Donna finds out she’s pregnant. In spite of running into each other a few more times and a proper restaurant date, Donna struggles to tell Max about the pregnancy as she’s beginning to actually fall for him.
Rather astonishingly, both films tackle incredibly taboo topics (abortion and rape) and still manage to end on a laugh. The entire premise of Obvious Child centers around a young woman’s abortion whereas Zero Motivation shows a date rape scene that ends with the woman a bit shaken but intact and a comeuppance for the man. For Donna, her abortion is an uncharacteristically logical decision made after heartfelt soul-searching and confuddling self-doubt. Considering the instability in her life and how little she knows Max, the best thing for the both of them is to terminate the pregnancy, even if they decide to pursue a romantic relationship further. For Zohar, the intended date rape is a perfect storm of a male soldier’s distorted horniness and Zohar’s naivete mixed with desperation. It is by sheer luck that her co-worker shows up in the nick of time with an army-grade rifle. In both cases, the situations are treated with equal heart and humor (Donna schedules her abortion for Valentine’s Day, Zohar puts on lipstick for the first time), without preaching any high morals or mocking their protagonist’s predicaments.
Now could Obvious Child and Zero Motivation be the one-two punch needed to start a new impetus in female-led films and more work for female directors? Most likely not. Neither will get the wide release of a film like Bridesmaids. Both films will stand more as theoretical victories for idealistic film critics and the indie crowd rather than actual ones with film producers and within the industry as a whole. Even so, their successes mark two more steps towards a more gender-equal film industry, one where female-directed films would no longer be considered a filmmaking sub-category and audiences would rally around a goofball heroine as much a goofball hero.
Diana Drumm is a Brooklyn-based film critic and writer. A member of the 2013 NYFF Critics Academy, her writing has been featured on Indiewire and its network (Criticwire, The Playlist & now Women and Hollywood), FilmLinc, The Film Experience, The Moviola, and Sound on Sight. Her twitter handle is @DianaDDrumm.