Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. HBO Max releases the film on its streaming platform on Tuesday, October 18.
Lissette Feliciano’s feature debut is just as scrappy as her leading lady. When “Women Is Losers” kicks off — so named for the Janis Joplin song of the same name — a righteously pissed off Celina (the wonderful Lorenza Izzo) is all but dragging her cheating husband Mateo (Bryan Craig) out of another woman’s apartment by his hair, but she’s still got the time to turn to the camera and apologize for any perceived lack of production value. This is, after all, “a story about making do with what you’ve got,” and both Feliciano and Celina make a lot out of their talents and passions.
Though not every one of the first-time filmmaker’s big leaps pan out — her ’60s- and ’70s-era production values really are quite high for an indie production, though some of her more out of the box musical selections would be odd anywhere — “Women Is Losers” is an infectious and auspicious debut. Set in San Francisco about 1965 (and very clearly filmed on location, let’s hear it for DIY scrappiness), “Women Is Losers” traces Celina’s life through its most formative years, starting with her time as a curious Catholic schoolgirl all the way to an impressive and unlikely professional career.
It’s Feliciano’s energy and creativity that keep the story going, plus Izzo’s dedication to a character who never seems to stop changing (that’s a good thing). Young Celina is bereft of steady role models — including her parents, played by Steven Bauer and Alejandra Miranda, who are beholden to both outmoded ways of thinking and a relationship that is plainly abusive — but she’s got ambition. She likes math because the rules makes sense, because there is always one answer, because following a straight line will get you somewhere.
Her personal life isn’t so easy to follow. When her maybe-boyfriend Mateo returns from the Vietnam War, even bad advice from her brassy best pal Marty (Chrissie Fit) can’t keep them apart, and before she knows it, the worst thing possible happens for a striving Catholic schoolgirl from an immigrant family: Celina gets pregnant. Early dramas pile up, including a tragic illegal abortion that robs Celia of Marty when she needs her the most (kudos to Fit for selling a particularly heavy-handed death scene, which culminates with her choking out a “don’t ever tell them I was sorry” that will haunt both the audience and Celina for years to come) and a handful of fourth wall-breaking incidents that don’t have the same charm as the one that started the film.
And yet Celina — and Feliciano — carry on, guiding us through Celina’s forced adulthood with pluck and grace. Different films might have turned Celina into something of an avatar for all immigrant stories, but Feliciano’s script finds the space to honor her journey and others like her, from interesting tangents about both Indigenous and Japanese history to the introduction of full characters, including her boss Gilbert (soon-to-be-Marvel-star Simu Liu) and the earnest Calvin (Cranston Johnson).
As Celina continues to strive, Feliciano introduces big ideas about financing, local property laws, and even time management, and if that sounds boring, you’ve yet to experience Feliciano’s ability to turn seemingly boring stuff into zippy pieces of narrative momentum. Izzo is a winning lead, and even as Celina cycles throughs all sorts of trials and tribulations, the star keeps her character relatable, warm, and wonderfully driven.
Set against a historic backdrop that didn’t exactly celebrate women like Celina, “Women Is Losers” unearths an unexpected feminist history and plenty of reasons why it deserves examination and exultation. The joke will surely be made ad nauseam as the film makes its way around the festival circuit, but it’s true enough to demand use: “Women Is Losers” is a winner, and surely the start of something wonderful for Feliciano.
“Women Is Losers” premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.