Here’s the thing: The idea of a “strong female character” is not a moral determination. Katniss Everdeen, protagonist of the “Hunger Games” saga, may be a strong female character, but that’s not because she’s a hero — it’s not because she’s possessed with an infallible sense of virtue and a Christ-like selflessness that defies any reasonable human standard. By the same token, slathering Scarlett Johansson in spandex and having her fight alongside Iron Man doesn’t make Black Widow a strong female character either, no matter how many asses she kicks.
The strength of a role has nothing to do with decency, and everything to do with depth.
What makes “Equity” such a vital feminist film, even when its other qualities are often few and far between, is how defiantly it internalizes that idea. At a time when someone can be a mother and a professional (or, say, a grandmother and a major political party’s nominee to become the next President of the United States), women — even the fictional ones — are still frequently denied the same degree of plurality that’s afforded to people with penises. In this story, however, all three of its major female characters are contending with major flaws, but it’s those very weaknesses that make them strong.
Likewise, “Equity” is both an unusually sharp portrait of women in the workforce and also a listless financial thriller about the perils of investment banking in the digital age. It would almost certainly be a more compelling story if it focused on the interior lives of its anti-heroines rather than the botched IPO launch that throws them together, but the best thing about the film — the greatest strength of which appropriately comes at the expense of its most glaring failure — is how it insists that its two parallel modes are inextricably part of the same narrative.
“Breaking Bad” alum Anna Gunn, famous for her thankless turn as the inflexible wife of contemporary television’s most two-faced anti-hero, stars as Naomi Bishop, a fierce, forty-something investment banker who’s been stuck on the same rung of the corporate ladder for far too long. She’s a workaholic to an extent that doesn’t seem to be demanded of the men in her firm; there’s a TV embedded into her bathroom mirror — she doesn’t have a husband, but she has a fuck buddy and a beta fish. Gunn plays Naomi to steel-jawed perfection, refusing to dilute the character with a softer side. She’s not a bitch or an “ice queen,” she’s just a girl who doesn’t want to apologize for going after what she wants.
Coming off the most public misstep of her career, Naomi’s tolerance for bullshit is at an all-time low. Inevitably, her frustrations trickle down to her VP, Erin (producer Sarah Megan Thomas), a plucky — and pregnant! — underling who is just beginning to learn the price of being a successful woman. Rounding out the haphazard trio is Samantha (Alysia Reiner, the other credited producer), a lesbian prosecutor who nevertheless uses her wiles to seduce information from male sources, and has her sights set on one of the dick-swinging chauvinists at Naomi and Erin’s firm. These three strands are knotted together when Naomi signs on to help a San Francisco tech start-up go public, initiating a business deal that unfolds with less nuance than an average episode of “Silicon Valley,” but enough empty suspense to make your blood pressure rise through the roof.
“Equity” is a story that you’ve seen a hundred times before, but never in a power skirt. Directed by Meera Menon (“Farah Goes Bang”) and written by Amy Fox from a story by Thomas and Reiner, this is a project by women, about women and for everybody — it bottles truths that every woman has to contend with on a daily basis and serves them up to a universal audience (including men, a portion of whom will surely find the film to be a revelatory experience). Crucially, it doesn’t pity any of its protagonists, or paint these women to be long-suffering paragons of virtue. The film empathizes with its characters, but it doesn’t pity them. All three of its leads are women, and all three of them are invariably seen as a woman by co-workers and clients alike — whenever a promotion comes along, they’re overlooked as women, too. They’re encouraged to use sex (or the prospect of it) to get ahead, and then punished for the same behavior. They’re forced into direct competition with each other, and then leapfrogged by a fraternity of men who are giving each other a leg up.
As you might imagine of a movie in which Craig Bierko is cast as a sleazeball investor, “Equity” is not a particularly subtle film — Menon’s compositions tell you exactly where to look, even when Fox’s script isn’t choking you with clumsy metaphors that range from the Jenga tower that Naomi’s slimy boss keeps on his desk to the cookie that almost ends her career (that detail is best left unspoiled). But subtlety isn’t really the name of the game in a movie that exists to call attention to a problem that is too easily ignored. “Equity” is at its best when it openly goes after what it wants, when it argues that equality is a virtue, but actual progress is paved with vice.
In the film’s best scene, Naomi speaks at an alumni function where an eager young woman asks the panel to share what makes them want to get out of bed in the morning. Naomi’s response to the crowd: “I like money.” Who doesn’t?
“Equity” is now playing in theaters.