By Diana Drumm | Criticwire February 14, 2014 at 10:57AM
On the surface, this year's Sundance Film Festival may have looked a bit like a boy's club with the more headline-splashing highlights being Whiplash (a festival darling pretty much right out of the gate, setting the critics abuzz as one of the strongest opening night films in Sundance history and later winning both the Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic and the Dramatic Audience Award), Boyhood (the highly anticipated and greatly praised 12-years-in-the-making Richard Linklater film, a late addition to the Premieres lineup), and Wish I Was Here (Zach Braff's Kickstarter-funded film, which landed one of the bigger distribution deals and Braff in some unpleasant waters with backers). But to those pounding the Park City pavement (and in spite of these recent depressing "women in filmmaking" figures), this year's festival included a refreshing number of unique female voices, and not just in the generally more gender-democratic documentary section.
In response to Sam Adams' question "Who killed the woman's picture?"and the rhubarb around male-oriented criticism (how can we thwack at the glass ceiling if we keep glaring at it?), "the woman's picture" is still alive and kicking, it's just evolved. The definition of "the woman's picture" may be arguable, but let's just say for this sake of this piece that it’s a film revolving around a female protagonist and a female-oriented plotline. The "woman’s picture" does not have to be a comedy or a melodrama -- not that either should be discounted, but we should keep an open mind to other modes of female-oriented cinema. With that said, the romantic comedy has not died (both contrary and colluding with Alexander Huls' article in The Atlantic); it was still there and pulling at your heartstrings, just with more authentic notes. There were even a few "woman's pictures" that didn't exclusively revolve around a romantic interest -- or are we meant to dub those "feminist films"? -- and still received praise from both female and male critics.
Let’s begin with three romantic comedies. All three films concern off-kilter female protagonists and their travails in life, love and finding the meaning in it all. Their leading ladies range from 17 to twentysomething. All are strong, independent women, whose plotlines are still woven around their romantic entanglements. One dabbles in teaching filmmaking, another pursues stand-up comedy and the third grows avocados. They each enjoy a meet-cute, conflict and resolution while also engaging in one-night-stands and/or unconventional sexual habits. Each tackled taboos (closeted bisexuality, abortion, vegetable-induced masturbation, etc.) to varying degrees. One film got glowing remarks in the trades, another was a "crowd-pleaser" and the third received mixed criticism. One got picked up out of the gate at Sundance (guess which), whereas the other two are still waiting for their distributors in shining armor (the last has been on the circuit since Locarno). What gives?
The three above films are Appropriate Behavior, Obvious Child and Wetlands. The first two are written and directed by women, the last is directed by a man and based on a woman's novel. Appropriate Behavior and Obvious Child are clear romantic comedies while Wetlands' inclusion in that category is hinged on dark, body-focused humor and a heavy-handed romantic twist. Out of Sundance, critics responded to the authenticity of the first two and lambasted the contrived quality in the trajectory of the third. Where Appropriate Behavior and Obvious Child revel in both adhering to and subverting the romantic comedy structure (the former resembling Annie Hall, the latter more conventionally laid out), Wetlands fell into the rom-com's more insincere trappings: pop psychology, a kiss in the rain and a drive off into the horizon.
In terms of gendered criticism, there wasn’t a great divide over these three. Appropriate Behavior's director-writer-actor Desiree Akhavan was compared to Lena Dunham and Woody Allen by both Variety's Andrew Barker and The Playlist's Katie Walsh, with Indiewire's Eric Kohn noting its "thoroughly modern voice." Obvious Child was dubbed an abortion rom-com by Thompson on Hollywood's Beth Hanna and a pro-choice rom-com by Variety's Peter Debruge, with Hanna concluding that it’s "the type of crowd-pleaser we could all use more of." Wetlands was the most divisive, with critics boggling over the film's trajectory. David Ehrlich wrote on Film.com, "It’s disappointing (and dull) to watch the film shackle her to the crusty and outmoded tropes of Psych 101" and concluded: "A brave film that eventually succumbs to convention is still braver than most." On the other hand, Vulture's Jada Yuan reveled in the film's premise (dubbing it "Sundance’s Crassest, Most Outrageous Movie") and overlooked the troublesome third act in favor of the audience's reaction and director Q&A in her review. Conversely, our own Katie Kilkenny tackled the issue head-on in her must-read "The Secret Conservatism of Sundance's Most Controversial Film." So none of these "woman’s pictures" buckled under a boys-club mentality, with more than a few female voices chiming in and coming to similar conclusions.
Now what about those other "woman's pictures" that I was rambling about earlier? The ones that don’t fall into the romantic comedy category? Well, the 2014 Sundance roster also included a modern-day travelogue and a buddy comedy (and we're not referring to the much-lauded male duo-led Land Ho!). In Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter and The Foxy Merkins, a female protagonist starts out on a risky journey, leaving behind all she knows and falling a bit to the left of the law in pursuit of a bigger dream. One woman winds up stumbling around the frozen horizons of Minnesota and the other makes a home in a Port Authority restroom. One unrequitedly falls for a policeman, the other her well-to-do mentor, with both flailing after their seemingly inevitable rejections (one over a shoe, the other by a campfire). One is at the center of a moving tale of quixotic determination and the other is part of a laugh-out-loud lesbian hooking duo (almost the antithesis of Midnight Cowboy). The first is written and directed by a pair of indie-inclined brothers, with beautiful cinematography and a strong lead performance that sells the unlikely story of a Japanese woman in search of the money stash from Fargo. The second is written and directed by the woman behind Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, with trace editing and an improv feel that undersell the film’s stronger comedy bits.
What did the critics make of them? Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter was embraced by every critic it encountered (from The Hollywood Reporter to Indiewire to Film.com) where The Foxy Merkins met mixed reactions from the relatively few reviewers it did have. That said, it's hard to compartmentalize reactions by gender when there simply aren’t enough in general. In the case of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, I've managed to find only three by female authors; a proper review by Thompson on Hollywood's Beth Hanna, a blurb in Kim Voynar’s roundup at Movie City News, and half of a dual critique of mine over on The Black Maria. (Please commenters, prove me wrong and find more.) Even bleaker, The Foxy Merkins only has one listing on Rotten Tomatoes (compared to Kumiko's 13). A Google search proves much more helpful, though to the film’s detriment, with both Variety's Dennis Harvey and Indiewire's Emma Myers panning The Foxy Merkins for falling short of its outrageous premise. Even though there were many more male critics than female (as with the industry as a whole) and the films were of two distinctly different levels of production quality, it seems as if the bigger issue, in regards to lack of reviews, was that they didn't fall into any easy categories and therefore didn't attract the number of critics as something more clear-cut would. Unfortunately, this also translated to neither being picked up yet, with our hearts and hopes set on a distributor recognizing the beauty and bittersweet whimsy (there's a pet rabbit named Bunzo!) of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter sooner than later.
You may be asking, what about non-comedic, or "serious," films that still have female leads and/or female-oriented plots? Women aren't all funny or adorably cute, right? Well, how does paranoia sound for a more "serious" theme? Not loose hysteria (no fainting couches here), but paranoia jam-packed with all of the narrative suspense that that entails. In The Babadook, an Australian mother reads a boogeyman-style children's book to her troublesome young son and begins to see it take life. In Blind, a newly sightless woman attempts to acclimate herself with her surroundings, doubting her husband's actions and fidelity with each unseen step. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a (vampirically fanged) girl wanders around a small Iranian city and feeds off of the local wicked (pimps, druggies, etc.). The first two films begin in recognizably mundane enough surroundings (Australian suburbs and Oslo -- neither too startingly terrifying, at first), whereas the third takes place in the literally dubbed "Bad City," with the tone set within minutes as dead bodies crop up in the background. I would have written "begin to crop up," but they’re just matter-of-factly there, beyond the "Iranian James Dean" lead walking and driving Llewyn Davis-style (i.e. with a cat).
From these somewhat humble beginnings (and with women running the show), these three films creep onto the back of the audience's collective neck, taking advantage of our suspension of disbelief to push us to the ends of anxiety. The Babadook plays into childhood fears of things unseen but imagined seeping into adulthood, with the worst taking form in the taunts of her child and in the titular monster. Blind tricks us into following the protagonist's worst perceptions of herself and those around her, with a swift-seeming realization and an all-too-fitting bittersweet turn-of-events. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes our notions of good and evil (or the living and the undead) and dashes them, but not without a few taunting hold-your-breath moments, even as a romantic plot begins to develop. All three leading ladies give Nabokovian tricky narrators (and their directors give Hitchcockian, or Highsmithian, suspense) a run for their money (the highest praise I could ever give).
So what did the critics make of these a-typical (female-led yet not hysteria-ridden) "woman's picture" suspense films (also not-so-coincidentally each a first feature for their director) at Sundance? Everyone liked, if not loved, The Babadook, with the mother-son chemistry between Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman and Jennifer Kent's direction named as strong factors. Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf gave it 5 stars, The Playlist's Rodrigo Perez a B+, and WeGotThisCovered's Emily Estep 4 1/2 stars. Blind was also highly praised, with Variety's Scott Foundas and The Hollywood Reporter's Boyd van Hoeij crediting the film's narrative success to the technical expertise of the team behind it. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night received generally glowing reviews, most noting it as an exceptionally strong debut splash from writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, though it had a mixed reception in the horror-genre world (Bloody Disgusting's Ryan Daley wasn't a fan of the pacing, while Fangoria's Sam Zimmerman gave it 3 out of 4 skulls). In spite of the high praise from both sides of the gender aisle (though still admittedly heavily weighed to one side), only The Babadook has a distribution deal (IFC Midnight snatched it up after the end of the festival), while A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night landed on Indiewire's "Memo to Distributors" and Blind is currently in the middle of another festival run in Berlin.
In conclusion, the "woman's picture" is far from dead; there’s still a pulse in the old bird yet and she sure was kicking at this year's Sundance. She's just trying on different clothes (buddy comedy, travelogue, horror) and enjoying new activities (traveling abroad, swearing like a sailor, drinking the blood of a heroin addict). Or, as someone less flippant might say, this category of film continues to evolve alongside society's notions and norms of womanhood. At the end of the day, and with however many thinkpieces or cutting tweets, it's still mainly up to us, the discerning filmgoing community, to keep watching, supporting and most importantly critiquing to keep the "woman's picture" (along with cinema in general) on its ever-evolving path.