As Hollywood explores the notion that female-driven movies aren’t just a good idea but also seriously bankable, the Sundance Film Festival in the post-Harvey Weinstein era unspooled its most female-facing slate in years. This year’s festival boasted a lineup packed with films that happily subverted the “strong female character” trope. Instead, we had a sprawling selection of complex, messy, rich, and real roles for actresses.
The festival’s most-talked about film, Jennifer Fox’s semi-autobiographical narrative debut, “The Tale,” offered that trope’s richest rebuke. The heartbreaking drama ostensibly follows Fox’s on-screen surrogate (Laura Dern) as she comes to terms with a decades-old molestation experience; it’s spawned by her mother’s (Ellen Burstyn) discovery of a “story” she wrote when she was 13, documenting her experiences with a pair of older coaches (Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki). But Fox also uses the film as a clever way to explore memory, and its fallibility; as Fox, Dern struggles to take possession of her own story, even when she’s desperate to rebuke the “victim” label forced on her by loved ones.
“The Tale” is rightly billed as the first great #MeToo movie, but it’s also a deeply personal portrait of a complicated, complex, and, yes, strong woman finding agency in the worst thing that’s happened to her. It’s early, of course, but it’s hard to imagine a more stirring and original feature hitting screens in 2018.
Two other very different filmmakers — first-timer Christina Choe, and longtime producer Marc Turtletaub — have their own features centered on singular women. Choe’s “Nancy” stars Andrea Riseborough, an isolated woman who uses the internet to spin wild stories, both for personal fulfillment and in the hopes of advancing her writing career. When she becomes obsessed with the idea that not only was she kidnapped as a child, but that she also knows who her real parents are, “Nancy” sets its eponymous character on a strange and emotional journey that defies expectations.
It would make one hell of a double feature with Turtletaub’s good-hearted “Puzzle,” in which Kelly Macdonald stars as a beleaguered housewife whose latent skill for jigsaw puzzling changes her entire life. Both films show the possibilities of letting female characters live inside complex characters who are often sidelined or even ridiculed in other films. (Plus, when’s the last time a bonafide midlife-crisis movie sensitively followed the path of a woman?)
Even films that could be classified as being driven by “domestic” issues got a boost. Tamara Jenkins’ return to the big screen after nearly a decade stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a couple struggling to conceive, an intimate story writ large by Jenkins’ sensitive approach to the story and Hahn’s ability to transform every role into something meaningful and profoundly her own.
Paul Dano’s long-gestating directorial debut, “Wildlife,” centers on a different kind of family in crisis, and while much of the narrative is viewed through the prospective of young Ed Oxenbould, it’s Carey Mulligan who burns through the film as a young wife and mother undone by her disappointing husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). Mulligan, who is reliably great, transforms the role of Jeanette Brinson into the story’s focal point, ably juggling terrible decisions with emotional poignancy.
Women-powered revisions to history and genre also dotted the festival landscape. The Zellner brothers’ “Damsel” spins a Western-infused tale of love and passion when told from the perspective of its male lead (Robert Pattinson), but is outfitted with a nifty twist once his supposed beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) gets her turn at the storytelling. By the third and fourth time Penelope screams at a gaggle of idiotic men that she doesn’t need saving, it’s clear that she’s no damsel in distress and this is a Western like no other.
There also was Chloe Sevigny’s passion project “Lizzie,” which offers a fresh look at the tale of Lizzie Borden and her supposed 40 whacks, and Keira Knightley as “Colette,” which makes a strong case for the revolutionary works of the French novelist. Even films that didn’t ultimately deliver, like the Daisy Ridley-starring “Ophelia,” admirably attempted to shift historical perspectives to allow for female roles rooted in their own agency. (Sorry, Hamlet.)
Female coming-of-age stories also dominated the landscape, topped by Bo Burnham’s delightful “Eighth Grade,” which follows breakout star Elsie Fisher as an awkward 13-year-old trying to navigate both middle school and the influence of social media. It’s the most satisfying and weirdly tearjerking film of the entire festival: You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman in the audience who didn’t believe that Burnham somehow adapted her diaries for the screen. Fisher is a star in the making, but this role seems destined to be one the of all-time-great coming-of-age heroines.
After bringing “Appropriate Behavior” to Sundance in 2014, Desiree Akhavan returned with “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Based on Emily M. Danforth’s novel of the same name, the film follows the eponymous Cameron (Chloe Moretz) as she’s forced to attend a gay conversion camp after being caught with another girl. Moretz excels in the role, tasked with pivoting between confusion, anger, desire and fear from minute to minute. Her co-star, “American Honey” breakout Sasha Lane, also gets another chance to prove her prodigious chops.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Crystal Moselle cast real girls to round out her energetic “Skate Kitchen,” and follows them as they cruise through New York City while wending their way through all the complications of teenage-hood. Like “Eighth Grade,” the film hinges on a social media component, but it also makes the case that growing up is always awkward, painful, and enlightening, even if it’s illuminated by an iPhone. The film is packed with first-time actresses playing spins on their real-life personas, adding a verite quality that’s hard to shake. If these girls feel real, it’s because they are.
This year, the festival’s infamously wild Midnight section features a majority of films centered women, splicing together genre delights with roles that giddily pushed their leading ladies to new spaces. Wasikowska is again on hand to flip the script on a movie that initially seemed male-dominated: Nicolas Pesce’s “Piercing,” which tracks the gruesome exploits of its male lead (Christopher Abbott) before Wasikowska arrives and makes it clear that this is her show and he has zero idea who he is dealing with.
Toni Colette and Matilda Lutz also get the chance to bust loose in “Hereditary” and “Revenge,” respectively. Both of these Midnight entries delight in their creepy genres – a haunted house thriller, a revenge chiller – before happily upending the playbooks and letting their leading ladies run totally wild.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Ryan Parilla
And what’s scarier than teen girls with a point to prove? Both “Assassination Nation” and “Never Goin’ Back” are foregrounded in the unique trials and tribulations of being a young woman in America today, though each has its own twist. “Assassination Nation” casts the Salem Witch Trials as a modern fable of the dangers of social media, allowing its cast of up-and-coming actresses, including Abra and Hari Nef, the chance to subvert teen-girl tropes.
Even films that featured women in mostly supporting roles, including buzzy titles like “Blindspotting” and “Sorry to Bother You,” seemed to studiously avoid roles for “the wife” or “the girlfriend.” In “Sorry to Bother You,” Tessa Thompson— girlfriend of Lakeith Stanfield’s protagonist — gets her own subplot about her art and activism, while “Blindspotting” actresses Jasmine Cephas Jones and Janina Gavankar are afforded more emotion and agency than typically ascribed to supporting actresses. In an emotionally fraught film, some of the most impactful moments are their own.
It’s a heartening start to the year in movies, but it’s just that: a start. It’s not too much to ask that, next year, Sundance expands its interest in complex leading roles for women to include far more women of color. As Sundance opener “Blindspotting” co-star Gavankar told her co-stars and the film’s screenwriters Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal at IndieWire’s studio: “You don’t get extra credit points for any of the things I’m about to say, but none of the women are a device, none of these women are there just do some one-dimensional thing for you, to show you one side of these guys. That’s not what is happening with these women. Again, you don’t get extra credit points for doing that.”