When Greta Gerwig’s already-lauded “Lady Bird” hits limited release later this week, the actress-writer-director will join a long line of other female filmmakers who used their directorial debut (this one is Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, just for clarity’s sake) to not only launch their careers, but make a huge mark while doing it. Gerwig’s Saoirse Ronan-starring coming-of-age tale is an instant classic, and one that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has enjoyed Gerwig’s charming work as a screenwriter in recent years, bolstered by her ear for dialogue and her love of complicated and complex leading ladies.
While Hollywood still lags when it comes to offering up opportunities to its most talented female filmmakers, many of them have overcome the dismal stats to deliver compelling, interesting, and unique first features. In short, they’re good filmmakers who made good movies, and now Gerwig is happily a part of their ranks. Here are seven more first-time films from some of our best filmmakers (who just so happen to be female) from the classic to the overlooked, the blockbuster to the breakout (plus a list of also-sees that should keep you happily watching movies for weeks to come).
Elaine May’s “A New Leaf”
As one half of the influential (and shockingly short-lived) comedy duo Nichols and May (alongside fellow filmmaker Mike Nichols), May eventually turned her impeccable timing and wit into a beloved filmmaking career in a time when few women were given the chance to take their skills behind the camera. Her feature directorial debut “A New Leaf” debuted in 1971, a black comedy that digs deep into some the human condition while also being uproariously funny to boot. An unlikely romance that gleefully toys with cinematic conventions — no spoilers, but the leads literally walk off into the sunset together — the film centers on a mismatched couple for the ages, Walter Matthau as a Manhattan playboy needing to marry for money, and May herself as a shy botanist who just happens to have some big bucks. The story itself may sounds rote, but it’s filled with a number of fine touches that speak to May’s genius, from accurate botany jokes (the best kind!) to a canny grasp of what makes movie love stories tick. The film was a box office bust and went mostly unnoticed, and a year later, May made her “Heartbreak Kid,” which garnered all sorts of attention, but “A New Leaf” still deserves some major love.
Karyn Kusama’s “Girlfight”
In the near-two decades since Kusama made her debut with this sports drama, the filmmaker has proven herself adept at spanning genres and tones while always keeping a close eye on her characters (that the same filmmaker made both “Jennifer’s Body” and “Aeon Flux” is wild in the best possible way). “Girlfight” made those skills clear from the jump, starring Michelle Rodriguez (in her film debut, too) as a fledgling boxer who uses her skills to literally fight her way into a better life. Kusama was inspired to make the film — with a female protagonist, no ifs, ands, or buts — after she actually learned to box. It’s a rousing sports drama, but it’s also proof of Kusama’s ease in crafting memorable, believable characters who take genuine journeys, and then emerge stronger than ever.
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love & Basketball”
While Prince-Bythewood’s debut was well-received when it bowed in 2000, the time-spanning, sports-centric romantic drama has only grown in critical estimation over the years, with fans (quite rightly) singing its praises loud and proud until it could no longer go ignored. On its surface, the film is a classic love story between a pair of old friends (Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps, who generate crazy amounts of heat) that’s both bolstered and hurt by their shared dreams of basketball stardom, but Prince-Bythewood and her cast use that trope-laden synopsis to mine some deep, real truths about identity and ambition. It’s telling that the film’s title emphasizes both love and basketball, because they’re both of importance here, and Prince-Bythewood doesn’t use either as crutch for the other. Lathan and Epps’ individual struggles are both treated with the same care and attention, which adds up to a better, richer movie and, gasp, an even more rewarding love story.
Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher”
First Look International
The power of despair is front and center in Lynne Ramsay’s harrowing debut “Ratcatcher.” Most American audiences know the Scottish film director thanks to the Tilda Swinton-starring “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” but that film’s lyrical storytelling and impressionistic images owe everything to the foundations Ramsay set in her debut. “Ratcatcher” centers around a 12-year-old boy living in the harsh slums of Glasgow, a setting frighteningly rendered by Ramsay’s stunning images that force your eyes to stare long and hard at the realities of poverty. The boy escapes his depressed world by creating his own down by the canal, and his encounters with two pivotal figures (a love interest and a friend) teach him just how beauty can exist in the harshest surroundings. The same could be said for Ramsay’s direction, which announced her as one of the cinema’s most visual artists. Her frames are like moving paintings in their construction, and it’s impossible to get them out of your head. (Additional contributions by Zack Sharf.)
Kasi Lemmons’ “Eva’s Bayou”
For her feature debut, Lemmons conjured up a rich and vivid world set during an interminably hot Louisiana summer that plays with both the persistence and the unreliability of memory. Toplined by a breakout performance by a young Jurnee Smollett as the eponymous Eve, the films follows the crumbling of an affluent family that is beholden to all sorts of terrible secrets and lies. As Eve comes of age, she’s forced to reckon with the realization that her family is not all that it seems — particularly her father, played by a haunting Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a familiar story writ large — and with a thrilling supernatural edge that only adds to its impact — and told through the eyes of a compelling narrator.
Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides”
Sofia Coppola’s special brand of laconic ennui and bored-as-hell privilege has never been as deeply touching and oddly provoking as it is in her feature debut. If she spends the rest of her career working to match it, we will all benefit mightily (and that’s not to say that the filmmaker hasn’t already gotten damn close with offerings like “Lost in Translation” and “The Bling Ring”). Brilliantly adapting Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel of the same name (incidentally, his “Virgin Suicides” was also his first foray into novel-writing, virgins all around on this one), Coppola still managed to put her own signature all over her debut feature. It was clear from the outset that she was a major talent to be reckoned with and one uniquely capable of turning disaffection, boredom and emotional tumult into something both very sexy and very sad. The hothouse atmosphere of the Lisbon house — and the raw longing of the Lisbon sisters — is evocative on its own (and on Eugenides’ page), but Coppola brings it to aching life with fine attention to detail, a stellar cast and what seems to be a close understanding of what makes the sisters tick (even if no one else around them can fathom their depths, which is really the entire problem). It’s a haunting exploration of both human misunderstanding (generally) and the precise pains of being a teenage girl in a world woefully unable to comprehend them (specifically). It hurts.
Sarah Polley’s “Away from Her”
Polley’s first film is a heartbreaker of the highest order, but one made essential by the unflinching nature of its storytelling. Based on the Alice Munro short story — so you know this baby already had good bones — “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the film follows an older couple coming the end of, well, something. It would be cruel to say their lives, and even worse to say their relationship, but as Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) are forced to come to terms with her descent into Alzheimer’s, it’s clear that their lives will never be the same. Both a tender love story and just like, gut-wrenching emotional drama, “Away From Her” sees the longtime couple making what seems like the best choice, only to have it turn out some very unexpected results. Sure-handed and loving, the film shows off Polley’s deep humanity with ease (and so many tissues).
Other films to check out: Jane Campion’s “Sweetie,” Alice Lowe’s “Prevenge,” Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits,” Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” Lorene Scafaria’s “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” Drew Barrymore’s “Whip It,” Marianna Palka’s “Good Dick,” Catherine Breillat’s “A Real Young Girl,” Penelope Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization,” Susan Seidelman’s “Smithereens,” Ava DuVernay’s “I Will Follow,” Jodie Foster’s “Little Man Tate,” Lesli Linka Glatter’s “Now and Then,” Nancy Meyers’ “The Parent Trap,” Meera Menon’s “Farah Goes Bang,” Anjelica Huston’s “Bastard Out of Carolina,” Lexi Alexander’s “Green Street,” So-yong Kim’s “In Between Days,” Lynn Shelton’s “We Go Way Back,” Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” Claire Denis’ “Chocolat,” Desiree Akhavan’s “Appropriate Behavior,” Joan Tewkesbury’s “Old Boyfriends,” Cate Shortland’s “Somersault,” and so many more.