52 Films By Women: The Virgin Suicides

By Andrea Thompson

Sofia Coppola's first full length film, “The Virgin Suicides” has everything that would become her trademarks: music, the ennui and isolation of the wealthy (albeit at a lower level than her later films), and a sea of white faces. It also perfectly taps into the strain, struggles, and deep turmoil of adolescence. It knows the pain of the five beautiful, seemingly unearthly sisters the movie revolves around so well, it doesn't even try to fully explain it to the outsiders observing, a group of teenage boys in the Detroit suburbs of 1970s.

Those boys are entranced by them, and they remain so for the rest of their lives. And watching this movie, it makes perfect sense, even if nothing terribly profound is conveyed. There is no revelation, no moment where the sisters come to a great truth that will set them free. They're too busy suffocating. A diary doesn't reveal violence or twisted power dynamics, merely a kind of quiet stupor that is the result of parents so determined to protect their children they have built a kind of gilded cage for their daughters, one whose bars only close in around them more as the film progresses. Small wonder, then, that the youngest, Cecilia (Hanna Hall), is the first to become suicidal.

IMDB

IMDB

“What are you doing here sweetie?” A doctor asks her after her failed suicide attempt. “You're not even old enough to know how bad life can get.”

“Clearly, doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl,” Cecilia responds.

She's exactly right, of course. Kirsten Dunst remarked in a very different, also very dark movie, that twelve is when girls first start to hate themselves. But thirteen is when it really hits. And by “it” I mean exactly what the world will expect from you for the rest of your life. You know you can't measure up, and it generally takes quite a few years before you realize that the fact you can't meet these expectations has nothing to do with you, and everything with the fact that they're impossible to meet.

And at 13, the years you have until you're legally free to pursue your own life can seem like an eternity. The movie doesn't try to explain why Cecilia is so determined and eventually succeeds in ending her life. The girls' parents - played by Kathleen Turner and a not yet insane James Woods - were already protective, but after this they tighten their grip even further. Subsequent events, where the sisters desperately attempt to reach for freedom, go horribly, tragically awry.

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IMDB

Kirsten Dunst (in the first of what would be many collaborations between her and Coppola) was always going to be the sister who stood out for name recognition alone, and she is the one who is the most at risk of becoming another male fantasy. Her character Lux is the most outwardly rebellious, and she is the one who suffers a devastating emotional blow that sets the tragedy's final arc in motion. Like most of the pain that proves absolutely devastating to girls (and let's face it, to women), it's because of a boy, in this case the school heartthrob Trip Fontaine, who's played by a young Josh Hartnett. He swaggers around the school like he owns the place, and it's easy to see why, since his good looks and charisma bring him constant attention from girls, and even a lot of leeway from the female teachers.

His interest in Lux at first is due to the fact that she's initially disinterested in him. This prompts him to do the chasing for probably the first time in his life, and even to develop feelings for her. What happens next isn't just painful because everyone else believes the womanizing, cavalier Trip is sincere, it's because he believes it too, even after his cruelty to the girl he supposedly loves. Trip manages to convince the Lisbon parents to allow him to take Lux to a school dance, where they win king and queen. The two of then sneak out to have sex on the football field. Afterwards, Trip abandons her. Even the adult Trip, who speaks lovingly of their brief relationship, is unsure of why he did this. Where he's ended up poses a clue, as the facility where he narrates his idealized version of their time together is apparently some sort of rehab clinic. Trip is an addict, and his pursuit of Lux is in essence nothing more than a new way to get high. Not only does he get to win over probably the only girl who was ever reluctant to return his ardor, it also allows him to idealize Lux and their time together. It's amusing to hear him speak of his great love for her when his actions are so opposed to his words. But then, that's what's so seductive about combining objectification and idealization. The object and the relationship remain beautiful forever, unsullied by the cares and complications that accompany true intimacy.

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IMDB

Things quickly spiral after that. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon remove the sisters from school and completely isolate them from the outside world, even destroying much of their music. After a long period of confinement, the neighborhood boys manage to come over to the Lisbon house late one night to find the sisters dead in an apparent suicide pact. Their parents leave the neighborhood soon after, and many of the other adults prove very capable of forgetting the Lisbons. It is the boys who never do, even after they become adults. Unlike most movies about men viewing beautiful, masochistic women from afar, the movie knows they will never be able to completely understand them. It acknowledges that the male observers are not only seeing them from afar, the little they are able to witness is merely a tiny glimpse of a deeply insular world they could never understand from the outside.

“The Virgin Suicides” ensured that Sofia Coppola's impressive pedigree wasn't the only reason she would go on to have a long and successful career. Not to diminish her talent, but the fact that she's the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola probably went a long way in her staying power. Many other female directors made successful films that displayed their filmmaking prowess, only to vanish. However, Coppola has managed the difficult task of not only establishing her own distinct style, but allowing her heritage to work for her, in part by embracing a very feminine vision that has often been dismissed as shallow. It is this confidence that allowed her to portray the Lisbon sisters as they were seen by the boys who observe them without descending into caricature. They almost seem to be angelic beings who flit through their suburban environment without truly being a part of it, but Coppola knows they are very human, and their isolation means they will never be understood. Their aura of mystery is never penetrated, and Coppola allows them remain unknown, which makes the girls more human rather than less. Small wonder that this film not only became a modern classic, but marked the beginning of a long and fruitful career for Sofia Coppola.

52 Films By Women: Set It Up

By Andrea Thompson

I had high hopes for the Netflix film “Set It Up,” which looked like a delightful romantic comedy that was just as invested in the heroine's career as it was in her love life, which of course she and her requisite male lead insisted on complicating. Instead, it's an example of how women can also get invested in sexism if it gives them a kind status that can result from buying into it. After all, when you are able to gain quite a bit of social cache by following the rules, you're less likely to advocate for those rules to be broken.

Rom-coms are tricky anyways. They depend more on conventions than other genres, which means there's little chance for suprises. They also obviously depend on romance, and that said romance will run into some obstacles before the two leads realize what everyone – from the people around them to any audience who happens to be watching – around them already knows. They are meant to be together!

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IMDB

Forestalling such an obvious truth is tricky, and that's why so many rom-coms buy into pernicious stereotypes, not only about love, but about gender and the so-called differences between them. It's a lazy way to create conflict when there's a very real danger of not there not being enough of it. “Set It Up” doesn't so much buy into traditional mores as the new ones which sprung up from the old, and are about as damaging. The fact that it's written and directed by women adds insult to injury.

First, the premise. It's actually an interesting one, as Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell) are long-suffering, overworked assistants to demanding, workaholic bosses. It's strongly indicated that Charlie's boss Rick (Taye Diggs) is a venture capitalist, but it's not made quite clear aside from the fact that Rick's job involves a whole lot of money. Harper's boss Kirsten (Lucy Liu) is the formidable head of a sports journalism site that Harper longs to be published on.

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IMDB

Harper and Charlie work in the same building and are at work before everyone , which is how they happen to meet, and Charlie quickly establishes his jerk bonafides. Harper is just barely able to persuade him to split the food that she ordered, but Charlie is quick to take for his own boss since Harper doesn't have the cash required. After Harper and Charlie meet up again and swap horror stories, as well as their complete lack of personal lives, they start to consider how their jobs would get a lot less demanding if their bosses Rick and Kirsten were seeing each other. And since Harper and Charlie control their schedules and nearly everything else in their lives, they can actually arrange this.

So Harper and Charlie decide to do just that. They get Kirsten and Rick trapped in an elevator together, only for that to go hilariously awry when a claustrophic deliverman gets trapped in there with them. Their second meeting, where Harper and Charlie arrange for them to sit together at a baseball game, goes much better, and Kirsten and Rick actually start dating, freeing up their assistants' time.

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IMDB

It's when this relationship starts that “Set It Up” gets problematic. Or rather, its leads prove to be as shallow as much of the corporate world the movie tries to criticize. Much of Kirsten's personality, time, and workaholic tendencies are assumed to revolve around the fact that she's not only a single woman of a certain age, but a woman sans children. Kirsten mentions that a lot of men proposed to her in her 20s, as if male attention suddenly dries up when you hit 30. Near the end of the film, she tells Harper, “Men don't want to date you when you're beating you to a story. But I've met someone who wants me to be strong, and he likes that I'm successful. I mean, he's a goddamn unicorn!” In the world of “Set It Up,” men who date women their own age aren't just rare, those who are attracted to women with power are apparently almost nonexistent.

Needless to say, Rick's behavior doesn't need to be similarly explained. He's barely humanized at all, and the moie seems just fine with this. While dressing down Charlie, Harper even says that he can be better, and that Rick can't help being an asshole. Really? Rick doesn't have the capacity to be a better person, or even the free will to do so? It's a rather disturbing justification of male behavior.

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IMDB

At least the movie knows where to draw the line. Harper and Charlie may be desperate enough to arrange for Kirsten to have a bikini wax once they learn that Rick is completely turned off by hair, but at least Harper isn't willing to hide Rick's plan to continually cheat on Kirsten with his ex-wife, even after he decides to marry Kirsten. Shockingly, Charlie is at first willing to in order to gain a promotion, and thus financial security from Rick, but his eventual decision to run to the airport to break up a romance is at least a nice twist on rom-com conventions.

Then again, Harper and Charlie don't seem much worth investing in either. Charlie is continually a jerk to her, and has a habit of, among other things, hanging up on her when they're in the middle of a conversation. Harper also comes off as little more than a Cool Girl cliché. She's into sports in a way only unrealistic female characters are: when it's convenient. And of course, she totally goes crazy on unhealthy snacks when she's sitting in the apartment by herself while somehow maintaining Hollywood beauty standards, even when she's at her lowest.

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IMDB

At least “Set It Up” places a lot of emphasis on Harper's career and her complicated relationship with Kirsten, deeply humanizing her boss by the end. But the movie's attempts at female empowerment ring rather hollow when it invests so much time into many of the beliefs that hold women back. Then there's the topic that goes completely unadressed: race. Their bosses are both minorities who worked their way up in corporate environments that still openly favor white men. The movie does dip a toe into how draining capitalism can be for those on the lower rungs, but it doesn't even approach as to how race might play a factor into Rick and Kirsten's personas and just how isolated they are. Rom-coms have come a long way recently, but “Set It Up” shouldn't be praised when other films have taken the genre much further.

Film Girl Film's Best Movies Directed By Women In 2018

By Andrea Thompson

One great thing about 2018 was that women made a variety of spectacular films about a variety of topics, which varied from trying to lose their virginity, avoiding eviction, the effects of violence on the soul, or just growing up and growing away from a parent. The filmmakers below come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, as do their subjects. But they were all made with a skill and care that we felt warranted a place here on Film Girl Film’s best movies directed by women in 2018.

10. Blockers

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

“Blockers” manages to do a lot with a premise the movie itself acknowledges is regressive, even as it just as swiftly points out how hard it can be for parents to be progressive about their daughters having sex. Because “Blockers” is in a very real way an anti-teen sex comedy, focusing more on the parents trying to stop their three daughters from gettin' it on once they accidentally discover they've all made a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. As the movie brings on the raunch, and somewhat formulaic zaniness, it manages to send a very progressive message about equality and how even the healthiest parental bonds can be strained by the simple facts of impending adulthood while also doing right by its male characters, showcasing established and emerging talent, and giving us a subplot with a lesbian love story. It's a tough balance for first time director Kay Cannon, who was mostly known for writing the “Pitch Perfect” movies. But she not only made it look easy, she kept the laughs coming the whole time.

9. Never Goin’ Back

A24

A24

Writer-director Augustine Frizzell's first feature film is a gross-out stoner comedy with a socially conscious heart that never demeans or stereotypes its teenage protagonists Jessie (Camila Morrone) and Angela (Maia Mitchell), two high school dropouts who make a series of increasingly idiotic decisions. The disastrous series of events is precipitated when they use their rent money to rent a house on the beach, assuring themselves that they can make up the money at their depressing waitress jobs in the even more depressing Texas town they reside in. Too bad their house gets robbed, the girls are arrested, and they lose their jobs. Rather than judge or focus on their lack of opportunities, Frizzell lets Jessie and Angela's friendship shine, allowing them to act like idiots in a genre typically reserved for men. Much like the rebellious duo it follows, “Never Goin' Back” refuses to offer any kind of reassurance that Jessie and Angela will make good and decide to do something with their lives, instead having them stumble on a decision that nevertheless has the potential to change them for the better and lead to better things.

8. The Tale

IMDB

IMDB

To say that the autobiographical HBO film “The Tale” is difficult viewing just might be the biggest understatement of 2018. Laura Dern plays the film's writer-director Jennifer, a documentary filmmaker who begins to reexamine a relationship she had in the 70s with her coach, Bill (Jason Ritter) when she was 13 and he was in his 40s. Jennifer had always considered it to be consensual, but as she reexamines her stories from the time and the course of her life since, she is forced to meditate on the nature of memory and how we survive trauma. Fox's writing is equal parts delicate, powerful, and nauseating as Jennifer graphically (but never exploitatively) relives her abuse, interviews people from her past, and comes to terms with the darkest time in her life, always refusing to allow her abusers define the narrative or herself.

7. Leave No Trace

Bleecker Street

Bleecker Street

Debra Granik's last narrative feature gave Jennifer Lawrence in a breakout role, and “Leave No Trace,” gives us another actress to watch in Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Tom, a teenager coming of age in a rural environment. She and her father Will (Ben Foster) are living an ideal, if mostly isolated life on a park in Portland, only to be discovered and taken back to civilization. Tom is able to adapt, but Will isn't, and he soon flees with her in the hopes of finding another secluded place to call home. More and more, Tom soon has to realize that her father will never feel her need for community, and she must finally follow a path that diverges from him. Granik brings their world to life, seamlessly incorporating the struggles of not only father and daughter, but other people living on the margins, many of whom are wrestling with addictions and traumas of their own.

6. Can You Ever Forgive Me?

EPK TV

EPK TV

After her first film “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” director Marielle Heller turns to another complex female protagonist in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Based on a memoir by Lee Israel, who is brilliantly played by Melissa McCarthy, Lee is a woman who has every right to be bitter. She's a writer who was once successful, but has fallen out of step with the 90s, the decade in which the film takes place. Or rather, she refuses to conform to expectations of female writers. She's middle-aged and uninterested in hiding it, a lesbian, and her look is stubbornly asexual. When she stumbles on an opportunity to make good by forging letters from deceased authors and playwrights, she decides to see how far she can go. And she is able to go quite far, aided by her only friend Jack Hock, a flamboyant petty criminal who is about as isolated as Lee. Heller and McCarthy know the stakes in Lee's story aren't very high, and they don't attempt to make Lee more likable or even remorseful in order to arouse our sympathy. What McCarthy and Heller would rather do is earn it, which they do, with a career-best performance from McCarthy that finds the vulnerability and humanity under Lee's prickly exterior.

5. Shirkers

IMDB

IMDB

When Sandi Tan was a little girl in Singapore, she was mesmerized by American movies and dreamed of making her own. In 1992 at the age of 20, she and a group of friends, along with her mentor and teacher, an American named Georges Cardona, decided to do just that, and “Shirkers” was born. A time capsule of the indie 90s film scene, Tan wrote and starred while Cardona directed, and she and her friends shot it using the scrappiest of filmmaking tools and styles of the young and hungry. Soon after, Cardona disappeared with the footage, leaving everyone devastated, especially Tan. Then the footage resurfaced 20 years later, only to find that the audio was lost forever. Accepting that her film “Shirkers” will never be restored, Sandi decided to revisit this time in her life and the circumstances around the making of the Singapore cult classic that never was. In the #MeToo era, there has been much rumination of the female filmmakers whose careers ended before they began, and Tan's life is a frustrating example of a young woman who never got to fully realize the dreams she put so much of herself into, mostly because she trusted the wrong person with them.

4. I Am Not A Witch

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IMDB

8-year-old Shula never utters the title phrase after she's accused of witchcraft, but it is a silent scream throughout. After she's blamed for an incident in her village, she's taken to a witch camp with other women who have been dubbed witches. Like the others, she is tied to a ribbon that's attached to a coil, and told that if she cuts the ribbon, she'll turn into a goat. In her feature length debut, director Rungano Nyoni, who was born in Zambia, wrings as much satire as pathos out of Shula's story. As Shula's status is exploited more and more, Shula first believes she can carve out a future for herself, only to see her hopes crumble as she witnesses every viable option devolve into a series of dead ends. Nyoni never condescends in her vision of Zambian society at any level, but her feminist vision and condemnation of a culture that seeks to blame its ills on unruly women shines fiercely throughout.

3. The Rider

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes an outsider's perspective can make all the difference in making the oldest stories feel not just new, but heartbreaking. Chloé Zhao wrote, directed, and filmed this modern western on location in South Dakota mostly using non-actors, who play fictionalized versions of themselves. Zhao was born and raised in China, yet she is able to give a profoundly moving meditation on masculinity and meaning after Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) struggles to find direction and identity after he suffers a serious head injury on the rodeo circuit. Brady's quiet, measured performance is a wonder, speaking to the real struggles of a man devoted to his harsh yet beautiful home, the horses with whom he clearly has a gifted, almost magical touch. We don't want him to return to the life that nearly killed him, but we respect why he's drawn to it.

2. Madeline's Madeline

IMDB

IMDB

Teenage girls are getting to play more complicated characters on-screen, and breakout star Helena Howard takes on the teen experience and so much more in a gloriously layered role about a brilliant, troubled young actress whose performances in her theater troupe begin to spill over into her real life in myriad, painful ways. The climactic final scene where she attempts to take back control (or does she?) is one of the most memorable, awe-inspiring, and moving scenes of 2018.

1. You Were Never Really Here

IMDB

IMDB

If ever there was a righteous hero, it would normally be Joe (Joaquin Phoenix in a shattering performance). Not only does he rescue women and girls who have been trafficked, he's also a devoted son to his elderly mother. But director Lynne Ramsay has never been one to take a conventional storytelling route. So instead of another triumphant action story with a crusading hero, Lynne gives us a profound meditation on violence that has the kind of disturbingly intimacy that refuses to allow audiences to keep a comfortable distance that would allow them to vicariously enjoy the bloodshed. Joe is a traumatized, suicidal veteran who is struggling to cope not only with the violence he sees in his present, but the horrors of his past, which includes a childhood with a father who viciously abused him and his mother. In the end, Ramsay seems to indicate that sometimes a connection with another human being may be our only saving grace, however fragile that connection may be.

52 Films By Women: Little Women (1994)

IMDB

IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

After I watched the 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, it felt that a more accurate title for the film was “A Little Woman” rather than “Little Women.” Josephine “Jo” March (Winona Ryder) was always going to be the sister who stood out the most. Not only is she the author surrogate, she's also an aspiring writer who has the biggest ambitions, a lively rebellious streak, and the personality to match. She's also deeply, realistically flawed, a tomboy who is fiercely loyal to her loved ones. Already, she threatens to run away with this whole essay.

However, Alcott not only based Jo on herself, but the other sisters on her real life ones, and their adventures were drawn from much of their lives, even if they occurred earlier than the novel's Civil War setting. So Alcott lavished attention and care on each one, giving them distinct personalities and flaws that not only made them recognizable and just as relatable, but also just as worth rooting for. It's why, in spite of the novel's endless moralizing, generations of girls – and women! – have returned to it again and again. But the film doesn't show that same care and attention.

IMDB

IMDB

There's certainly a lot to like about it. For one, it's directed by Gillian Armstrong, who also directed a young Judy Davis and Sam Neill in the 1979 film “My Brilliant Career.” A primarily female cast isn't enough to make a film feminist or even feminine, but Armstrong's directing prowess, and the warmth and skill of the cast and crew makes “Little Women” absolutely burst with feminine energy. When Meg March (Trini Alvarado) tells Jo, “You've ruined me!” after poor Jo burns off part of her sister's hair, we feel her pain. We laugh and ache with them as they struggle to make do with their more humble clothes when they head out to various social engagements.

The rest of the cast is also just as spot on, with Susan Sarandon as the girls' mother, whom they call Marmee, Claire Danes as the delicate Beth, a young Christian Bale as Laurie, and Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer. Every actor who plays Jo's eventual husband has to earn forgiveness for having the audacity to marry Jo, rather than her lifelong friend Laurie. Byrne more than earns it, turning on the charm as the passionate intellectual who is supportive of Jo's ideas of equality and encourages her to write what she loves, rather than what her publishers desire. We don't have to wonder why she's drawn to him. Yet it's the decision to cast two different actresses, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis as the younger and older Amy respectively, that is the savviest. Unlike other adaptations, the film can allow the youngest March girl to act her age, and it also makes Amy's eventual romance and marriage to Laurie a lot less creepy. Even with all that, the refined Amy is the weakest link in the sisters, with her elegance being off-putting more often than not.

IMDB

IMDB

Then again, it doesn't help that the entire film feels more episodic, merely skipping from one adventure to the next rather than functioning as a cohesive whole. Perhaps that's more due to sketchy editing, since screenwriter Robin Swicord did incredible work on other films, writing not only “Matilda,” but “Practical Magic.” Here it's hard to feel invested in many of the other characters, who come off as mere sketches. Meg and John Brooke (Eric Stoltz) barely share any scenes together before they start making out, and Brooke comes off more like a prig, leaving Meg's attraction to him something of a mystery. It feels more like they come together due to a mutual primness rather than an actual passion.

Amy and Laurie's courtship feels just as lifeless. Amy mentions she's considering accepting a wealthy man she doesn't love, but it never feels like she'll actually go through with it. As she and Laurie form a connection, Amy mentions she doesn't want Laurie to marry her so he can be a part of the March family, but they're so stiff together, with Amy especially coming off as remote and moralizing, that it's hard to perceive what else Laurie could see in her. Sure, he's still smarting enough from Jo's rejection of his proposal to grow a beard and drink out of a flask, but apparently a few conversations with Amy is enough to set him on the proper path.

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IMDB

One of the only major events that hits home is Beth's death. Claire Danes does great work with a character that could easily come off as angelic, and she imbues Beth with enough feeling to make her recognizable as an actual person. She is unafraid of death because she realizes that her sisters must leave the home she loves and is content to remain. In the film, death becomes a way for her to go ahead of her sisters.

For this version of “Little Women,” little that Jo doesn't witness is deemed relevant. The end of the movie culminates in Jo turning its events into the novel many of us know and love. It's a good, even expected, device, but it also makes the sisters' lives even less valuable in themselves and merely fuel for the enjoyment of others. From what I've seen of the 1933 version, it seems to capture the novel better, more seamlessly transitioning to various stages in the lives of the March sisters, with Katharine Hepburn probably more accurately embodying Jo's boyishness, mischieviousness, and more masculine energy. With Greta Gerwig writing and directing a new version next year with a cast consisting of Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, and Meryl frigging Streep, it's guaranteed to be a memorable one if nothing else.

52 Films By Women: A League of Their Own and the Legacy of Penny Marshall

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By Andrea Thompson

Penny Marshall was an amazing entertainer who broke new ground for women. She got her big break as the Laverne half of the TV show “Laverne & Shirley,” which ran for eight seasons, from 1976 to 1983. When she decided to turn to directing, she eventually broke major ground with “Big” in 1988, which was the first movie directed by a woman to gross over $100 million.

Four years later in 1992, Marshall made “A League of Their Own,” which in many ways is a far more impressive film. The fact that it was a sports movie directed by a woman is remarkable enough, but the fact that the movie is about women who actually play sports, rather than being sidelined into traditional roles as supportive wives and mothers, is still far too impressive today.

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“A League of Their Own” also focuses on the relationships between the women themselves, rather than their love interests, more specifically on the bond between Dottie (Geena Davis) and her younger sister Kit (Lori Petty). They're both young women during WWII, when all the men fighting overseas threatens to put an at least temporary end to Major League Baseball. Desperate, the MLB decides to create a women's league, sending out scouts to recruit potential players. When one, played by Jon Lovitz in a small but hilarious role, sees Dottie play, he tries to get her on the team rather than Kit, who is far more desperate to escape life on their family's farm. Dottie is reluctant, but when she learns Kit won't get a chance to try out unless she also goes, Dottie agrees.

Of course, Dottie and Kit are both chosen to play on the team, which is called the Rockford Peaches. The other players who eventually join them are also very enjoyable to watch, and the actresses who play them, among them Rosie O'Donnell and Madonna, are clearly deeply committed to telling this story. Marshall had the cast go through baseball training, and the effort they put into it shows, with many of them suffering some very real injuries during filming.

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“A League of Their Own” also addresses the very real sexism the women faced. There are concerns that the players are in danger becoming too masculine, and throughout there are constant reassurances that they're still feminine. In news reels, the players are shown putting on makeup, serving men coffee, and knitting. It seems especially hilarious that the League would dress them in short uniforms and make them take classes meant to them into “respectable ladies,” but it isn't so surprising when you think about the way female athletes are still viewed, with the restrictions the NFL places on their cheerleaders being one of the most egregious examples. There's also no drinking, their social life must be approved, and no men. It isn't long before the women rebel, evading their chaperones to head out for some good times.

There's also a small, but powerful moment when a black woman throws a ball back to one of the players, powerfully and skillfully, then quietly nods. It hits that the women allowed to play, and have to be so careful not to offend, are all white. Black women are never given a chance to prove themselves. The fact that “A League of Their Own” acknowledges this, however briefly, is remarkable in a 1992 film.

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There are also the cliches though. In almost every underdog sports film, you have the disgraced coach. In this case, it's Jimmy Dugan, played by Tom Hanks. Hanks so often plays the good guy, but every now and then he reminds us that he can go dark, but it would be more accurate to say he goes sleaze here. Even if he eventually comes around because he can't help but respect the effort the women put in, he still gets to spout off lines such as, “I haven't got ball players, I've got girls! Girls are what you sleep with after the game, not what you coach during the game!” Far more entertaining is when he signs a kid's baseball and tells him to avoid the clap.

Needless to say, I love this movie, even when it dips too far into sentiment. Most of my annoyance with it has to with Geena Davis. It isn't her fault, as you can always count on her to do impressive work, which she does here as well. It's just that her character Dottie grates on me, mostly because her main purpose is to be likable. She is a very skilled player, she helps Dugan improve his life, and she does right by her sister Kit. She even has 90s era Bill Pullman for a husband, and I can't help but wonder if they made this guy a dreamboat so we can forgive Davis for leaving baseball. Pullman is nothing but supportive of her when she decides to play in the World Series, but I can't help but wonder how supportive he'd be if Dottie had more ambitions for herself. Not that we have to worry about that, since she even needs encouragement from her children to go to the reunion 40 years later.

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I much prefer Kit, with all her anger, messiness, unreasonable reactions, and especially her drive. She knows her sister will always do right by her, and most annoying of all, that she's always right in general. It only makes it all the more painfully plain to Kit just how much she's always been in her sister's shadow. So Kit is relieved when she's traded to another team and she'll finally be able to escape. (Spoiler to follow.) One of the most satisfying moments for me is when she knocks Dottie down to win the game and finally achieves something for herself. That their reconciliation at the end becomes more heartfelt is an added bonus.

It's an impressive movie, and Penny Marshall had an impressive career. Yet it has a tinge of the same old frustration. After she made a few less than impressive films, Marshall's directing gigs got few and far between, and she found more work as an actress. More and more, I'm finding it harder to find contentment with the few movies women did manage to make in spite of the system, and mourning more for the films that never saw the light of day. That contentment seems dangerous now, both for the female directors who are both up-and-coming and those who continue to work. However, I can wholeheartedly say that Penny Marshall gave us not just great films about women, but new ways they could see themselves, and thus dreams they may not have had without her. RIP.

Romance, Homogenized: Crazy Rich Asians And Cutlure in Rom-Coms

By Arrisa Robinson

As I reflect on “Crazy Rich Asians,” (which is FINALLY out in theaters), I can only think of the vast differences between family dynamics in this film versus what we typically see in most romantic comedies. But as I begin thinking more and more about these differences, it occurred to me: does race have that much of an impact on the type of families represented in these films?

Well let’s look into it! For starters, I sat down and binged-watched a bunch of rom-coms on Netflix, starting with “13 Going On 30.” Main character Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner) had a small family that consisted of a mom, a dad, and herself. Then I moved on to “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) and Ben Berry (Matthew McConaughey) both came from small households. Andie’s family was barely mentioned, but Ben’s family was made up of a mom, dad, uncle, brother, sister-in-laws, and a couple nieces and nephews. They were standardly nuclear for the most part.

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But then I pulled up some of my favorite rom-coms, which consisted of casts who were primarily non-white. I saw mom, dad, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, every unnecessary in-law, exes, frenemies, and everything in between. The predominantly black cast of “Guess Who” includes extended family members and friends. Even in “Our Family Wedding,” which features an extensive black and Latino cast, the various players combine to create one gigantic, chaotic family by the end.

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But an even bigger epiphany came to mind: where’s the culture? This doesn’t even go for films that involve people of color. As I thought about what these movies had in common, I recognized this lack of culture in a lot of big romantic comedies. Sure, we as Americans have a certain stigma about ourselves but-sorry, not sorry-we’re more than that. We’re comprised of Africans, Chinese, Indians, Irish, Indonesians, Greeks, Pakistanis, Australians and so many more! And they all have their specific values and traditions. Even in films such as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” or “Polish Wedding,” their family units stand out because of what is culturally acceptable and what we all have in common. It's customary to have an overbearing mother or aunt who cares about who’s marrying who, a host of cousins who intrude on every aspect of your life, or that one aunt and uncle who take their nieces or nephews under their wing like they were their own.

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Ultimately, I realized that Hollywood didn’t fail at having more families in its romantic comedies. What Hollywood has failed to do was have more culture. Americans are composed of a staggering amount of races and ethnicities, and it ought to be fair to represent them rather than homogenize them on the big screen. So seeing a film out like “Crazy Rich Asians” openly express how Asian-American culture is represented makes a hell of a difference in Hollywood and in our society. There hasn’t been a primarily Asian cast in theaters since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club” 25 years ago. So if you were wondering why everyone is emphasizing why representation matters, just remember...25 years. That’s why.

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Sure, romantic comedies are supposed to be light and cheery, and by all means, they should continue to be. But here in the great US of A, white people are not the only people in this country. America consists of different shades, cultures, traditions, and values, and they should all be represented and accounted for. Making it to Hollywood is one thing, but Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, America Ferrera, Lance Gross, Zoe Saldana, Lena Olin, and Nia Vardalos all represent the diversity that make America America. Hollywood embracing that is just another step towards getting acquainted with our neighbors, and we have plenty of them. I hope to see more films with more people of color, races, ethnicities, sexualities and genders coming to theaters soon. Because it definitely matters.

52 Films By Women: Love & Basketball

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While watching “Love & Basketball,” I wondered why almost no other media I'd every seen managed to take women's basketball seriously. Even that bastion of liberalism, SNL, can't manage to do that. It shouldn't be that hard, and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood doesn't so much make it look easy as just decide to do it. She's also one of the few directors in this column who went on to make more films, such as “The Secret Life of Bees” and “Beyond the Lights.” “Love & Basketball” was her first film, and it has themes that Prince-Bythewood would continue throughout her career: emphasizing a female perspective while also treating the male characters as human rather than fantasy objects. But “Love & Basketball” gives us far more gender commentary, both the overt and quiet kind.

The movie is actually a love story, not just between its central characters Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps), but also the game they adore. Like that game, the movie is likewise divided into four quarers. They meet when they're 11, when Monica and her family move next door. Quincy's father Zeke (Dennis Haysbert) plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, and Quincy dreams of playing for them too and wearing his father's number. Monica is a tomboyish girl with undeniable talent who wants to become the first woman in the NBA. Their first meeting contains many of the same patterns that will recur over the course of roughly the next decade of their lives.

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The first quarter sees Monica first approaching Quincy and his friends as they're playing basketball. They initially mistake her for a boy, as she's dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, and a Lakers cap in what seems like a direct opposition to Quincy's Clippers Jersey. The boys laugh when her gender is revealed, but they're silenced once Monica starts playing and quickly proves her talent. The game abruptly ends with Quincy knocking Monica down, giving her a permanent scar. He's immediately remorseful, and the two make up, even agreeing to be boyfriend and girlfriend. This lasts all of two minutes, as the two start fighting again almost immediately after Monica refuses to give up her bike to ride around on Quincy's.

Flash forward to the second quarter, when Quincy and Monica are nearing the end of their high school years. Their relationship has followed the pattern established in the first, and the surprise lies in how it unfolds, and how natural it feels, for better and worse. They both clearly still love the game, and each other, and they still bicker even as they are drawn together. Both are the stars of their respective teams, although Monica's aggressive style holds her back, while Quincy is rewarded for his. Despite their often tense rapport, Monica is still the one Quincy turns to as his parents' marriage becomes more tense. They finally end up getting together after ditching their respective dates at a school dance, with a love scene that feels both romantic and realistic. It's clearly Monica's first time, and the scene emphasizes her vulnerability. Not many sex scenes make a point of showing a condom, but “Love & Basketball” not only does this, it pauses the action for a few moments to allow Quincy to put it on.

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In most films, the conflict would generally arise right after this, but then the third quarter picks up when they're both at the same college playing for their respective teams. Much like in high school, Quincy is the star, with Monica struggling to adjust her tactics and the coach giving her harsh words for her playing style. She puts in the work, while Quincy succeeds with little conflict. This changes as Monica finally gets more playing time just as Quincy starts to experience his own struggles. He's trying to decide whether to drop out of college and go pro against his father's objections. His family is also falling apart as Zeke's various infidelities have been discovered by both his mother and the media, and Monica becomes more absent due to the demands of the team. In response, Quincy lashes out in various ways, then finally breaking up with her, leaving Monica devastated.

The fourth quarter picks up a few years later. Quincy plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, while Monica's only chances for success at the sport lie overseas, since it's a few years before the founding of the WNBA. She's found professional success in Barcelona, but she's also lonely and isolated in a foreign culture away from family and friends, and years before the Internet made long distance communication a lot easier. But she returns when she hears that Quincy injured his ACL, which has the potential to end his basketball career. When they meet again, Monica is shocked to also discover that Quincy now has a fiancée (Tyra Banks), and less surprisingly, that she still has feelings for him. Her feelings for basketball are less passionate, and Monica decides to finally stop playing, return home and work at a regular job. Quincy reacts in disbelief, but soon even he finds that he's becoming less passionate about the game, even though he's recovered from his injury.

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We know these two are going to realize they belong together, but surprisingly it's Monica who decides to make the romantic gesture and challenge him to one last game. If she wins, it's because Quincy is having doubts about his upcoming marriage and let her win so they could be together. If she loses, then he gets married and she buys him a wedding present. They play, right out where they first met, and Quincy does end up beating Monica, only to choose her by saying, “Double or nothing.” We then get one of the best feel-good endings ever, where Monica is a WNBA player, with her husband Quincy and her toddler daughter cheering her on from the sidelines.

“Love & Basketball” is somewhat problematic in that it seems to agree with Quincy and blame Monica for their breakup, but otherwise it's a fascinating exploration of the politics of gender, love, and female athletes. A large part of the duo's coming-of-age is how their parents affect their choices to conform or not. Quincy becomes estranged from his father Zeke not only after he is unfaithful to his mother, but after he lies right to Quincy's face about it. Monica's relationship with her mother Camille (Alfre Woodard) is far more rocky throughout the film for more complicated reasons. Camille is a homemaker, and Monica notices how she allows her father to constantly take her for granted. Monica's sister is more supportive, but Camille never takes her daughter's dreams of basketball stardom seriously, constantly pressuring her to give it up and “act like a lady.” After they finally confront each other about their mutual perceived disrespect, Camille does quietly encourages her to fight, if only for Quincy, rather than basketball.

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Nevertheless, Prince-Bythewood never loses sight of how Monica has to constantly struggle to do what she loves. When Monica plays a pivotal game in high school that leads to her being recruited by the college of her choice, we get a POV shot of the game from her perspective, and a voiceover about her strategy, something we never experience when Quincy plays. Monica is the one who must fight, not only to improve, but to be taken seriously as an athlete, and to stay in a game which isn't interested in giving female athletes nearly the same prestige and opportunities as the men. Female-led sports movies are rare, with “Bring It On,” “Girlfight,” “Million Dollar Baby” “A League of Their Own,” and “Bend It Like Beckham” being among the most well-known. The reason the WNBA gets so much ridicule is not only because it represents an aggressive sport played by women, but because it is one of the most visible and prestigious organizations for female atheletes, and thus the most threatening to our ideas of what women should be and how they should act. When Prince-Bythewood first began writing, it didn't exist, and when it did, it actually changed the ending, allowing Monica to achieve her feminist dream on-screen of having it all.

“It’s interesting that [having it all] is considered a feminist mantra, but for me, it was just natural, and it definitely had to do with growing up in sports and what that teaches you: to fight for what you want, to leave it all on the floor, that aggression is good,” Prince-Bythewood said in the oral history of the film. “That’s just what I’ve embodied, and it’s natural for me to want the marriage, and the career and the kids. It’s natural for me, it’s normal for me, and that’s what I wanted to do: to make it normal. It’s frightening that even today we’re having the same conversations and it makes no sense. If the work that I put out in the world can counter that mentality, let me be out there contradicting that, because it’s bullshit.”

Film Girl Festival Interviews Tia Richardson

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Tia Richardson is a major force in the Milwaukee arts scene, having become especially known for her murals, which emphasize community. In some cases, she even gets that community to help her create, as was the case with her Sherman Park mural. 

After Sherman Park experienced a surge of violence and rioting, Richardson  recruited residents of Sherman Park to help her design and paint a mural in the area. With each project, Richardson emphasizes connection and healing.

"Part of why I get so emotional is just because when we realize the level of the lack of connection that we have with each other that's the cause of so much depression, loneliness, isolation, mistrust, that feeds into substance abuse, that feeds into a lot of the generational, societal issues that we see," Richardson said. "A lot of the systemic issues that we see were created by people who have something going on with them that is caused by, in some way, their own level of suffering and trauma."

Festival intern Arrisa Robin sat down to chat with Richardson about Milwaukee and what inspires her. Listen to the full series of interviews below.