52 Films By Women: The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

IMDB

IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

The 1982 film “The Slumber Party Massacre” may not seem too feminist in the beginning, but that's because it seems to think it needs the male gaze to draw in the audience. Just keep watching, even if it's difficult not to wince at the topless scene, the closeup on the posterior of a repair woman who is later murdered, and the camera's outright lecherous gaze as it travels down the body of the high school girl showering in the school's locker room. All within the first ten minutes.

But patience is rewarded, since “The Slumber Party Massacre” actually offers up some pretty good slasher scares. It's not only directed by a woman, Amy Holden Jones, but also written by noted feminist Rita Mae Brown. The film would become something of a modest franchise, spawning two sequels, also directed by women, with each film subsequently garnering worse reviews.

Not that the reviews for the first installment were exactly glowing. It's easy to see why, since the film is pretty straightforward. There are no twists, the villain's sole defining characteristic is his incredibly phallic weapon of choice, a power drill, which is played up in several shots, as well as much of the marketing. There's none of the gimmicks which define the most famous horror movie monsters, and the fact that this guy even has a name feels like an afterthought. The closest thing he gets to a backstory is revealed in various news reports, which are mostly limited to a newspaper headline and a few radio announcements.

IMDB

IMDB

What it amounts to is that Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) is a mass murderer who has recently escaped from wherever he was being held and is currently at large. His face is shown pretty clearly as the movie goes on, and anything remarkable about it solely due to the deranged energy Villella brings to the role. But just because he's a simplistic villain who's attacking girls in sexy nightwear doesn't mean there's not a whole lot of commentary and outright subversion in “The Slumber Party Massacre.”

In a genre that's often defined by its misogynistic glee in literally tearing apart women and girls who violate traditional standards of behavior, what the movie seems to subvert is the genre itself. As main girl Trish (Michelle Michaels) throws a party with her friends, who mostly interact with each other and actually have personalities, there's also three male characters who turn out to be surprisingly okay, even the pervy high school boys who spy on the girls while they're changing clothes. A very non-creepy neighbor, David Contant (Rigg Kennedy), is far more concerned with the the girls' safety rather than what they're smoking and drinking, while the two high school boys risk their lives to help Trish and her friends once the extent of the danger they're all in becomes clear.

While there are the usual plot holes, such as people seeming to hear weird noises only when the script demands it – so much so that I wondered if their hearing fluctuated throughout – Trish and her friends make several smart decisions. Even before they realize they're being hunted, they stay together, always have one of their friends accompany them when they check if doors are locked, and they arm themselves with knives and stay in a tight circle once they realize what's happening.

IMDB

IMDB

“The Slumber Party Massacre” also has some truly hilarious comedic sensibilities, which include a girl opening a refrigerator door twice without noticing on there's a dead body inside, only for the third time to be the charm. While the massacre is happening, one of the girls even gets hungry and starts eating a pizza right on top of the deceased pizza delivery guy. “Well, life goes on after all!” she states as she sates her hunger.

The most notable thing about “The Slumber Party Massacre” though, is how it knows that a horror movie bad guy doesn't really need to be an unkillable monster to be frightening. He just needs to be a guy intent on murdering women. Practically the only intelligible lines he has speak volumes. As Thorn gazes on his terrified would-be victims, he quietly says, “Takes a lot of love for a person to do this. You know you want it. You love it. Yes.” To this, one of the baffled women responds, “Why? I don't even know you.” It's one of those simple exchanges that's nevertheless chilling for the realities many women must face, both on-screen and off..

Tellingly, it is the outcast, Valerie (Robin Stille), who spends most of the night next door at her home babysitting her little sister Courtney (Jennifer Meyers), who emerges as the movie's true heroine. She doesn't just literally cut Thorn's weapon down to size with a machete she discovers, she is the one who causes Thorn to flee, then mutilates him as she strikes multiple blows, finally killing him. With the help of other women, she and the other survivors manage to triumph over a patriarchal symbol who is brutal, but can eventually be beaten.

52 Films By Women: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

body remembers hug.jpg

By Andrea Thompson

“The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” is a long title for a film that seems so simplistic on its face. It consists mostly of a series of conversations, none of which can be called witty or especially explanatory. It’s a good thing, since “The Body Remembers” isn’t trying to be. And in a market full of examples of witty banter, easily quotable quips, such an approach feels novel, even when it isn’t.

The film also uses its relatively toned-down approach to accomplish a complex goal, that of showing the solidarity, then the very real friendship, that develops between two women despite their drastically different situations and backgrounds. Rosie (Violet Nelson) and Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, who co-wrote and co-directed) are Canadian and Indigenous, yet probably wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for a chance encounter.

The blue-haired Rosie is short, what the media generally calls plus size, darker skinned, and impoverished. From the moment we meet her, she oozes sadness and pain. During the multiple instances where she provides help to others, whether it’s people on the bus, or the others with whom she shares the depressing apartment she calls home, it’s hard not to wonder if her actions are the result of real kindness, or a conditioning that’s caused her to always put others first.

Tiff.net

Tiff.net

Whatever the case, she demands compassion rather than pity, a fact which quickly becomes apparent once her path intersects with Áila, who comforts and aids Rosie after she discovers her barefoot and beaten in the street one rainy day. Áila is tall, thin, light-skinned, and oozes class and status. When she leads Rosie back to her comfortable abode, it’s a far cry from Rosie’s living space. 

Soon after, we discover Rosie is pregnant, and that she was beaten by the abusive boyfriend who was screaming at her off-screen earlier. She is also difficult to like, cursing and insulting Áila multiple times as she’s trying to help, even stealing a bottle of pills from her medicine cabinet so she can sell it to a dealer. Yet “The Body Remembers” never loses its compassion for Rosie,quietly but urgently reminding us that her behavior is a result of her circumstances.

Yet for all their differences, the two of them are also able to casually reference their commonalities while the film emphasizes the wide gulf between their opportunities, and thus, their situations. In other words? Yes, women’s experiences are varied. It’s not always interesting, and the movie’s emphasis on intimacy at all costs means that it can drag at certain points. Unfolding mostly in real time, the camera doesn’t so much film as reveal the layers that are slowly shed as Rosie and Áila allow themselves to be seen by the other.

Tiff.net

Tiff.net

Rosie’s vulnerability is also the most heartbreaking, increasing despite her best efforts, especially when Áila is finally able to persuade Rosie to accompany her to a women’s shelter in the hopes that Rosie will choose to leave her abusive boyfriend. As she recounts various incidents of violence while also defending her partner, it’s the kind of realism that’s as horrifying as it is frustrating. It’s difficult not to get invested, or even angry with Rosie as she defends the partner responsible for mistreating her so cruelly.

And for its empathy, “The Body Remembers” also refuses to give us a feel-good ending. Things might improve someday, but the film wants to show us the state of things today, and it’s not good. It’s also, as the film states, normal. Debuting at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, the film had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has been acquired by ARRAY, the film collective founded by filmmaker and all-around goddess Ava DuVernay, with a release planned for later this fall. A film starring and co-directed by Indigenous women shouldn’t be rare, but hopefully this acquisition will allow “The Body Remembers” to be seen by a wider audience that will become a new norm in itself.


52 Films By Women: Hustlers (2019)

STX Films

STX Films

By Andrea Thompson

Once upon a time, I hit something of a low point. Actually it wasn't something of a low point, it felt like rock bottom, or perilously close to it. I was unemployed, spat out of a city I had moved to in hopes of a fresh start and better career prospects, and struggling to pick up the financial and professional pieces while crashing on a relative's couch. Feeling stuck in a city and situation I was desperate to escape, it didn't much help that I was heading to a job interview waiting tables at a comedy club in a part of town that looked like where dreams go to die.

Much to my fascination, I discovered the venue shared a building with a strip club. Due to a still healthy sense of curiosity and no doubt a desperate desire to make as much money as I could, I decided to head over and check it out. To my untrained eye, it seemed like a less seedy example of the business, which was probably helped by the nonexistent crowd, hardly surprising on a weekday afternoon. To my shock, a fully clothed woman who worked there (or claimed to) spoke of the close-knit bond among her coworkers as well as their artistic endeavors outside of the club, revealing my own preconceptions about the women who earned a living there.

She encouraged me to apply, and I soon found myself discussing the requirements of the job with a male manager, including the seeming lack of complexity there was to the dancing. I wasn't so sure about that, as the stripper I saw working the pole possessed a flexibility it didn't look like I could approach, let alone replicate. The really profound moment was a relatively small one, and it involved the various styles of revealing attire the dancers wore. Whatever their style of dress, the manager referred to their work clothes as a costume.

STX Films

STX Films

Such an insignificant issue of semantics, but it helped me realize why I found stripping so unsettling in spite of my firm commitment to sex positivity. I realized that stripping was only a two-way exchange in terms of services rendered and cash given. Nor was it simply a commodification of sexuality. What it was really selling was male fantasy, and the job of the women was to cater to that above all else. Their desires weren't a part of the equation. A simple conclusion? Perhaps. Yet it allowed me to form my own convictions about an ongoing debate in the feminist community about whether various expressions of female sexuality were demeaning, empowering, or both.

I never ended up taking either the serving or stripping job. But this experience came to mind while I was watching and very much enjoying the movie “Hustlers” at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It's got the usual “inspired by a true story” qualifier, but the movie seems to share a remarkable number of similarities with the article that is its source material. Both tell the story of a group of strippers who came up with a very much illegal scheme to scam their Wall Street clients out of their money.

Much of the enjoyment is due to writer-director Lorene Scafaria embracing the magical ingredient essential to this movie's success: centering the women. Whether their sexuality is empowering or not is almost beside the point, not to mention an oversimplification. It's how they chose to use it which matters. And hey, let's face it, it's also a large part of what makes their story as fun as it is fascinating. Countless movies have at least a scene or two at a strip club, and they often have strippers who function as living set pieces to make the movie sexier, edgier, or a combination of both. Few bother to give them speaking lines, let alone any kind of storyline devoted to them.

STX Films

STX Films

In “Hustlers,” the female gaze is centric from the start, as is control. The first thing we hear as we meet our viewpoint character Destiny (Constance Wu) is Janet Jackson's 1986 hit song “Control.” These women have to fight not just for money, but power over their lives and bodies, and Destiny is still getting accustomed to this world and how to make a living in it. At first at least. Once she meets Ramona, gloriously played by Jennifer Lopez in full diva mode, she thrives as Ramona decides to take her under her wing. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say, under her fur coat as she purrs, “Climb in my fur.” Their friendship is the gateway into the supportive world they and the other women create for themselves, and we see their camaraderie, and how playing sex objects affects their personal lives. Although any music fans will be disappointed, since Cardi B and Lizzo don't have roles as much as extended cameos. And since it's 2007, there's no need for schemes. The Wall Street types they cater to are able and willing to spend the money that allows Destiny and the others to live the good life.

Then the financial crisis hits, and both Destiny and the country are thrown into disarray. She becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, and the two part ways a few years after their daughter is born. Once Destiny exhausts her meager options, she returns to stripping, only to find that her former workplace has become a far harsher place that's mostly populated by Russians who are willing to give the men blow jobs. Most of the women she knew have moved on, but Ramona still frequents the club and recruits her for her new hustle. She and the others she works with lavish suitably wealthy men with attention and drinks, drug them to encourage higher spending habits, take them to the club where they worked, and take a percentage from what they spend there.

And it actually works for quite a long time, with Ramona and Destiny relishing the money and the power they find scamming the scammers. It's hard to blame them, as it was painfully clear just how disposable these women were when they were doing legit work. Before, the top CEO clients, whom Ramona referred to as “axe murderers,” were given free reign and never faced any consequences for their actions because everyone wanted what they had, whether it was their privilege, status or wealth. I've never seen “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but I'm willing to bet this one sentence is a better analysis of this world than the entire three hour runtime of “Wolf.”

STX Films

STX Films

Women are a rarity in this world, often limited to a select few who managed to fight through the bro culture and somehow get to the top, or more commonly, as wives, mothers, and mistresses. So the deeply feminine perspective is what makes this story feel so refreshing, despite its familiarity. If you've seen any kind of gangster or mafia movie, you know how this goes. Destiny and her friends make money and they simply don't know when or how to stop. They then make the mistakes that will bring them down. As Destiny puts it, hurt people hurt people.

While the pain they caused is acknowledged, but most of the men don't earn our sympathy, from the main characters or the female journalist they recount the story to years later. These men stole from others with no consequences in a game rigged in their favor, and the movie makes most of them as expendable as Destiny and her cohorts generally are. It wasn't just that these women were dishing out the pain so routinely heaped on them, it was the vicious cycle of exploitation they were perpetuating. Even the drugging seemed normal to them, given how much illicit substances were already a part of their world. “Hustlers” merely shows us a world where our most common beliefs about money, beauty, and power are taken to an extreme that ultimately devalues everyone, even those who initially appear to benefit from it most.

52 Films By Women: Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992)

IMDB

IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

Damn straight this is a film Hollywood dare not do. Many films make similar claims to edginess, but the 1992 offering “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” earns it, simply for immersing itself so fully in the mindset and world of 17-year-old Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson). Movies about Black people coping with marginalization, most of which soon came to be known as “hood” or “ghetto” movies, had already become a thing, what with the success of “Juice” and especially “Boyz in the Hood.” But those films, and pretty much most of the others, were all about the men, and “Just Another Girl” has an unapologetically feminine perspective, from Chantel and her friends graphically (and stupidly) discussing sex to casually mentioning their periods.

We learn a few things about Chantel right away, mostly that she's a smart, driven teenager who lives in Brooklyn during a time when that meant something different. This is the 90s, so people are using tokens on the subway (the I.R.T. of the title refers to a New York subway line) and dealing with what looks like the earliest stages of gentrification. Chantel also gets good grades, and is trying to graduate early so she can go to college and become a doctor. She confidently speaks her mind, asking why the struggles of Black people today aren't addressed, and takes pride in talking tough when pushed.

IMDB

IMDB

Chantel also constantly breaks the fourth wall as she speaks directly to us of her determination to be different than everyone around her, from her classmates who are constantly failing, dropping out, or getting pregnant, to her own parents. They clearly love each other and their children, but the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, coupled with the lack of opportunities and their opposing work schedules, shows in vicious arguments which occasionally arise. “That's not gonna be me,” Chantel tells us. “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” makes a good case for her momentum. Chantel is smart, and she has the grades to graduate early and head to college.

She's also dangerously ignorant the way 17-year-olds generally are. She may be intelligent and confident enough to call out the injustice she sees and excel in school, but her lack of experience also leads her to make the same mistakes many other kids her age do. Faster than you can say you dumb kid, she's ditching her boyfriend and her friends to hang out with the smooth-talking Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen) and having unprotected sex with him. When she vomits in the bathroom shortly after, she's too smart not to know what it means, but she still can't bring herself to make a decision. Deciding she has better things to do, Chantel carries on as usual and employs various tricks to hide her pregnancy.

As for Ty, although he initially reacts angrily when Chantel tells him the news, he does try to help. He wants her to have an abortion, but he never tries to force her to do anything. It is Chantel who screws things up even further by using the money he gives her to go on a shopping spree with her friend. He has every right to be angry with her, because Chantel also never asks for help, probably because she doesn't know how. She's so invested in keeping up a tough front that she doesn't know how to be vulnerable. When she goes into a very graphic, bloody labor at Ty's place, his concern is for her. Chantel is the one who persuades him to take a horrific step to ensure her future, and he undoes the deed far before she regrets her request and tries to do the right thing.

IMDB

IMDB

Director Leslie Harris not only shot the film on a shoestring budget of $130,00 in 17 days, she ran out of money during the editing process, partly because she refused to give in to pressure by studio execs to make Ty a drug dealer. After generous donations from author Terry McMillan and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, “Just Another Girl” went on to win the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. If there were any justice in the world, Harris would've gone on to have a prolific career, but she hasn't made another feature film since. “Just Another Girl” seems to be enjoying a kind of rediscovery in recent years, and Chantel herself remains a heroine who refuses to be pigeonholed, even if many reviewers tried to dismiss her as merely a younger version of the stereotypical angry black woman. Her pregnancy compromises the future she envisioned for herself, but it by no means ends it. Young Black women coming of age on-screen also seem to be less and less rare, with films like “Akeelah and the Bee,” “Pariah,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Precious,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “Jezebel.” Yet for some, Chantel will always be the first heroine where they were able to see themselves.

52 Films by Women: Saving Face (2004)

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

By Andrea Thompson

2004's “Saving Face” is a good film, and it almost makes you cry for the greatness it could have achieved. It's one of the only films that revolves around queer people of color, and in an immigrant community no less. It has a clear affection for that community, and how the people in it interact, but director and writer Alice Wu is also very aware just how strict its standards are for how people should live.

In New York City (because where else?) the Chinese-American Wilhelmina 'Wil' Pang (Michelle Krusiec) is a successful surgeon who's on a clear track to success. She's also a lesbian, but she doesn't dare reveal that to her traditional family. They share many of the characteristics other on-screen immigrant clans do. They fuss, they're deeply embedded and connected with others who also came to America, and they are set on Wil getting married to a nice boy of their choosing.

So Wil is hardly a fan of the mandatory gatherings at Planet China, where these pressures are magnified. But she does get something out of it, since that's where she meets Vivian (Lynn Chen), a ballet dancer who's more interested in the less prestigious world of modern dance. These two prove that with the right chemistry, standing in front of a junk food machine can be hot. Thankfully, they get together pretty quickly, but there's early signs that between the demands of Wil's career and her more closeted status is getting in the way of a good thing.

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

Wil's existence gets even more complicated when her widowed 48-year-old mother Hwei-Lan Gao (Joan Chen) just shows up on her stoop and basically bosses her way inside. Wil finds out what's really going on not from her, but on the phone with her grandma Wai Po (Guang Lan Koh) her Ma is pregnant and unwilling to say who the father is. Whoa. The situation is unusual to be sure, and revealing of some very messed up dynamics. Not only does Hwei-Lan still live with her parents, her stern father berates her, calling her a disgrace and a shame to them. He kicks her out of their home, and the family, until she finds herself a respectable husband. So Hwei-Lan moves in with Wil.

Wil's mother may have quietly acquiesced to her father's harsh words, but she has no problem ordering Wil around and redecorating her apartment. It also adds a few more obstacles in her budding relationship with Vivian, who wants more openness in their lives. Have to admit though, they're adorable together. Although their love scene together, which is shot beautifully, is still a little weird since Wil is wearing her ponytail the whole time. Does she ever take that thing out?

Of course, Hwei-Lan is dealing with her own difficulties, such as the pregnancy she decides to see through. When she also decides to start dating, it's interesting to see the dynamic flip, with Wil ordering her around. Although why Wil is going along with all this, and not discouraging her mother to marry a nice but unsuitable man that's been chosen for her is rather baffling.

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

Much of the frustration about “Saving Face” comes down to a certain...distance, shall we say in the directing. Even though the entire cast gives great performances, this reticence also keeps them apart. There's also abrupt cuts between Hwei-Lan's story and her mother's that can also be somewhat jarring to see. Not to mention the ending, which seems a bit too feel-good after the rest of the film delving into how cutting the traditional community can be.

Pretty much all of the issues in “Saving Face” can pretty much be boiled down to Wu's inexperience. Wu is from the tech world, and actually left her job at Microsoft to make this film, which is obviously inspired by her own experiences. Wu's instincts obviously lean more towards the technical side of filmmaking, but “Saving Face” is still an incredible first effort, showcasing Wu's unique voice and perspective. It should've led to far more, but this is Wu's only film to date. Thankfully, that should change, as Wu will be directing the upcoming Netflix film “The Half of It,” which is about a shy, bookish Chinese-American high school student who helps the school jock win over the girl she's also in love with. Here's hoping there won't be 15 (16? There's no release date yet) years until her next feature.

7 Films To Watch For Pride Month

By Andrea Thompson

Happy Pride Month! Since there's still a few days left to enjoy it, here are seven films that you should make time to watch.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

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IMDB

This Golden Age Hollywood film is somewhat limited by its time, but it's also got quite a bit going for it. Countess Marya Zaleska (film goddess Gloria Holden) should be more well-known as not just one of the great female villains, but just a great villain in general. She could even easily be anti-heroine, as we meet her far before our hero and his love interest, who aren't nearly as interesting. What makes Zaleska so tragic is that what she truly wants is a normal life. She believes Dracula's death has freed her, only to discover she still craves blood and death. She is a great danger to both men and women, and lesbian undertones are quite clear, given her ultimate temptation is the sight of a young woman's bare throat. So Hollywood's first reluctant vampire was a complex female character, whose was equally regal, beautiful, and terrifying.

Desert Hearts (1985)

IMDB

IMDB

First off, that dynamite outfit on Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau). Cay doesn't exactly arrive on-screen, she bursts onto it, laughing as she recklessly drives backward, wind in her hair. The prim and proper Vivian (Helen Shaver), who has just come to a Nevada ranch for some peace and quiet after filing for divorce, is fascinated by her, and only gets more so. Their mutual attraction practically sets the screen on fire every time they meet, and their love scene together is both tender and sensual without coming off as objectifying. The love story is also blissfully free of any love triangle, and the sweetly optimistic ending was a rarity for LGBTQ films at the time.

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

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IMDB

“The Watermelon Woman” isn't just a criminally underappreciated classic, it's a 90s time capsule, a time which saw a resurgence in Black cinema. Director and writer Cheryl Dunye plays a fictionalized version of herself who's also named Cheryl, a Black lesbian who works in a video store (ah, nostalgia) in Philadelphia with her best friend Tamara (Valarie Walker). Cheryl soon becomes obsessed with a Black actress who played a series of mammy type roles in the 30s. It's a meta narrative that's also socially conscious, as Dunye creates her own history in order for the fictional Cheryl to confront the lack of resources devoted to Black women on-screen, just as she's dealing with a fallout with her best friend Tamara after she starts dating a white woman. It's groundbreaking, fascinating watch on its own merits, not just because “The Watermelon Woman” is the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian.

Imagine Me & You (2005)

IMDB

IMDB

In many ways, “Imagine Me & You” is just another rom-com. The difference? It revolves around two women. Also, it stars Lena Headey. Yes, Queen Cersei. And she's fantastic as Luce, who shares an intense chemistry with Rachel (Piper Perabo) from the moment they lock eyes...on Rachel's wedding day to Heck (Matthew Goode, yes this movie also has Matthew Goode). Even if the poster makes it seem as though this relationship blossomed behind the back of not just one, but two men, Luce is very aware and comfortable about her preference for women. It's Rachel who is initially very sure of who she is, then begins to question her sexuality after she meets Luce. Their love story is sweet and tender as it grows in spite of Rachel's conflict over her kind and decent husband Heck, who senses the change in his wife but is unable to discern the cause. Even if the the movie keeps things light, it also delves into the prejudices and disapproval Luce still has to face simply being who she is, and Heady and Perabo have the kind of chemistry that makes rom-coms soar.

Pariah (2011)

IMDB

IMDB

“Pariah” doesn't sugarcoat just how rocky coming-of-age can be for LGBTQ youth in an environment that wants them to be anything but. For her feature film debut, Dee Rees pulls few punches in just how much 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) must overcome despite of her status as a gifted student and writer who lives in Brooklyn, which is often depicted as a liberal haven. Alike is very certain of her lesbian identity, but her conservative parents prefer denial and conformity. Alike's mother is especially invested in her daughter conforming to a more conventional femininity, buying her pink clothes Alike clearly isn't comfortable in, and displaying open hostility towards her supportive and out friend Laura (Pernell Walker). For a time, Alike thinks she's found comfort and love with Bina (Aasha Davis), only to experience her first heartbreak as she learns just how invested Bina is in denying not only her own truth, but their shared one. Even if Alike emerges firmly committed to breaking free of the forces that constrict her, those forces still ensure her freedom has a price.

The Handmaiden (2016)

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IMDB

“The Handmaiden” is one of the most unusual on-screen love stories. The plot seems simple enough at first. In Japanese-occupied Korea, a Korean pickpocket named Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired to serve as a handmaiden to the supposedly naive and innocent Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) in order to assist a conman in robbing Hideko of her inheritance. What seems like a straight path (pun intended) soon proves to be more of a maze, as Sook-Hee begins to develop feelings for Hideko, who is also more complicated than she appears. Unlike other films that claim to be erotic, “The Handmaiden” actually lives up to the genre, giving us a thriller that is equal parts suspenseful, stylish, and yes, sexy.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

IMDB

IMDB

Unlike the other heroines, or even the other anti-heroine, on this list, author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) isn't even trying to be good. It's understandable though, since other priorities like survival take precedence. In 1991 New York Lee is deeply out of step with the times. She not only a female writer, she's an older woman who's also a lesbian, and not interested in making nice with entitled, successful male authors. To make some extra cash, she decides to forge letters from deceased authors, and before long is actually able to find quite a bit of success. McCarthy manages to make Lee not only sympathetic but lovable without softening her or making excuses, taking us gleefully along for the ride as Lee cons the industry that has shut her out.

52 Films By Women: Pariah (2011)

IMDB

IMDB

By Andrea Thompson

The 2011 Dee Rees film “Pariah” may be a coming of age film about a Black teenager who is also a lesbian, but her struggle isn't with her sexuality exactly. From the film's opening shots, it's pretty clear that 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) knows she's into women. As “Pariah” begins, Alike is staring in awe at a female stripper at a club with mostly Black lesbians while the very uncensored version of Khia's “My Neck, My Back” plays. So no Alike isn't in denial, but most of those around her are. Alike has to leave soon after, and her insisting that her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) leave the bus before her is the first sign that Alike doesn't feel. Sure enough, Alike sheds her preferred masculine clothing for a more conventionally feminine look.

The reasons why are soon clear enough. New York City is generally depicted as a bastion of liberalism and acceptance, where stand-up comics can confess onstage that they're pregnant and planning on getting an abortion the next day. Not so in Alike's Brooklyn neighborhood, a more conservative world where in seems most are happily in denial when reality doesn't suit their beliefs.

Alike's parents certainly are. They're not only in denial about their daughter's sexuality, but their marriage itself. “Pariah” never officially reveals that Alike's father Arthur (Charles Parnell), a police detective, is having an affair, but the late-night phone calls, the absences, his lack of interest in almost any kind of intimacy with his wife Audrey (Kim Wayans), and his general defensiveness, are all clear indications.

Alike's inclinations are just as equally clear. It's inescapable even in trivial moments, such as when Audrey buys Alike a pink shirt, and her coworker immediately assumes it's for Alike's younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), who is clearly interested in boys and what dress to wear to the school dance. Rather than accepting Alike, Audrey tries to mold her into the image she believes Alike should conform to, which backfires as such efforts usually do.

IMDB

IMDB

The really heartbreaking thing is that it backfires in a way neither Audrey nor Alike predict. Audrey disapproves of Alike's friendship with the openly gay Laura, and pushes Alike to befriend Bina (Aasha Davis) instead. Alike is at first reluctant, but quickly forms a bond with Bina, who proves to be more complicated than she appears. In a film where music plays such a large role, the two first bond through a shared appreciation of the underground rap Alike adores. This also gives her a welcome relief from the club scene that the studious Alike has never felt truly comfortable in.

It turns out though (if it needs to be said...spoiler alert!) that Bina is pretty deep in denial too. She's very aware that Alike is a virgin, and takes the initiative throughout their relationship. Bina is the one who makes the effort to get to know Alike, and is the first one to kiss Alike, invite her to stay the night, and take their relationship deeper. But the morning after Bina and Alike have sex, Bina is detached, picking up stuff around her room and not looking at Alike. Not good.

It gets worse, as Alike naturally assumes that Bina still cares about her, even telling Bina that last was amazing and thanking her. In response, Bina dismisses both Alike and the ramifications of their night together, telling her it was just playing around and that she's not “gay, gay, just doing her thing.” The only concern she has left for Alike is whether or not she'll tell anyone. It's basically every girl's worst nightmare of how your first time will be.

This can't leave Alike anything but devastated, but it seems to make her more determined than ever to live her own truth. When she hears her parents arguing, she decides to get involved and finally tell them the truth neither of them wants to hear. Far from being cathartic, Audrey beats Alike in spite of Arthur's pleas, and Alike retreats to Laura's house. Even though Arthur makes a feeble attempt to bring Alike back home, Alike decides to head to Berkeley for an early college program she's been accepted to. “I'm not running, I'm choosing,” she says defiantly. Even if Alike's mother still refuses to reconcile with her daughter at the end, Alike's loved ones, which include not just her father and her sister, but Laura, are there to see her off.

IMDB

IMDB

In a way, “Pariah” is a far more brave film than “Moonlight,” a far more iconic film directed by Barry Jenkins that came out in 2016. Dee Rees even utilizes many of the same techniques as Jenkins, albeit in a far more subdued fashion. Jenkins used a far more instrumental score in “Moonlight,” bathing its Miami neighborhood setting in far more sumptuous colors that spoke to Jenkins's influences, specifically Wong Kar-wai.

“Moonlight” also has Chiron reconciling with his mother and finding love by the end. In contrast, diligent student Alike leaves by the end for a new life, still estranged from her mother and the classmate who was her love interest. Even Alike's closeness with the father who was far less interested in changing her remains tenuous. Yet Rees leaves us in no doubt of the bright future Alike has ahead of her. Her heartbreak has allowed her to delve deeper, leaving us with a poem that speaks of her brokenness, and defiance, the freedom she has found as the result of her struggles.

52 Films By Women: Desert Hearts (1985)

Screenshot

Screenshot

By Andrea Thompson

Few things are more satisfying than a groundbreaking film that's actually good. And in 1985, lesbians were doing the Western romance way before “Brokeback Mountain.” So if you haven't heard of the 1985 film “Desert Hearts,” get familiar.

“Desert Hearts” isn't just groundbreaking because it's a lesbian love story that's written and directed by women. There's more to it than that, as director Donna Deitch is also a lesbian, so we're also seeing a queer love story as told through a queer female gaze, which helps explain why the love scene is sensual and appreciative rather than leering or objectifying.

Many films also love to claim they're subversive, but such claims are genuine in this case. “Desert Hearts” kicks off when 35-year-old New York academic Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) comes to Reno, Nevada in 1959 for some peace and quiet during her divorce. As she explains to her lawyer, there was nothing really wrong with her marriage. Her husband was good to her, and they had a good life together. It just wasn't the life she wanted, which is an honest one that doesn't depend on having the right friends and the right prints on the wall.

“I yearn for something you couldn't analyze or reason away,” Vivian explains. “I want to be free of who I've been.” She accepts that this might mean she's alone for the rest of her life.

Or not. Enter the 25-year-old free-spirited Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), who feels like a force of nature from the moment she appears on-screen, laughingly, recklessly driving backward to greet Vivian as she's arriving at the ranch where Cay is also staying. Vivian is immediately interested, if not quite consciously at first. From the first time the two actually meet and chat, the chemistry is off the charts. Blue really is the warmest color the way Charbonneau rocks that crop top and jean shorts. It's bodice ripper level of swoonworthy.

worldscinema.org

worldscinema.org

The setting for their slowly building romance also soon proves to be far more complicated than your typical repressive small town. Cay is pretty open about her numerous affairs with women, which her surrogate mother and ranch owner Frances (Audra Lindley) tolerates while simultaneously turning a blind eye to. She also has a true friend in Silver, an older woman who works with Cay, and who's happily engaged to a man, but also has a tenderly physical relationship Cay as well.

“Joe's in the kitchen, you're in the tub,” Silver sighs to Cay. “Jesus, I'm happy.” Unconventional to be sure, but it becomes one of the film's more beautiful portrayals, not only of love, but of female friendships, with Joe (Antony Ponzini) accepting of them both and unconditionally loving towards Silver. Silver is also the only one who seems to have Cay's best interests at heart, and offers her advice that is actually geared towards her betterment.

Cay does seem to have all the freedom in the world...until she finds that “somebody who counts,” as she puts it. As her and Vivian's connection grows, so too does the opposition to it. Frances kicks Vivian out of the house, but then, she might have done that with any connection Cay formed. Her lack of acceptance is also ironically born out of a deep need for Cay's love and presence. She was the mistress of Cay's father for ten years, even taking Cay in after her mother left her, and Frances desperately wants to keep Cay close to her.

It's indicative of Deitch's refusal to allow either women to be defined by the reactions of the straight women around then, and it's most likely why reactions to their tender love story were mixed. There are few things straight white men dislike more than such complete and utter dismissals of their perceptions and opinions. Deitch even had a difficult time finding actresses to audition, since fear of playing LGBTQ material was at an all-time high, especially when the script didn't involve suicide, heartbreak, or a love triangle with a man.

It is also the older, prim and proper Vivian (who actually wears a string of pearls) who is seduced by Cay, slowly and tenderly in the gorgeous desert landscape. I'm no fan of small towns, having hated the one I grew up in. But they do lend themselves to a kind of poetry onscreen, which makes certain one-liners sound wise rather than laughable, such as when Vivian tells Cay her marriage “drowned in still waters,” and Cay replies, “Say no more.” Even the country music is used to great effect. As Silver sings a love song and the two eye each other up, the heat they generate radiates off the screen.

The best, most enjoyable exchange between the two actually happens right before their love scene, where Vivian is explaining to Cay what a respected scholar she is, and how fond she is of order and how unused she is to raising her voice, only to turn around and see Cay naked in her bed. “I wouldn't know what to do,” Vivian protests. Cay replies, “You can start by putting the do not disturb sign on the door.”

What happens after, when the two women leave the hotel room and spend time in the outside world, is difficult to watch. It's clear they love each other, partially because they both tell each other, and that Cay's feelings for Vivian make this a new experience for her too. Vivian is unused to having to defend herself and her relationship against the world, and feels exposed just sitting in a restaurant with Kay, resulting in their first fight. In another film, this is where they would part ways, and “Desert Hearts” would end in either a terrible accident or their declaration to love each other regardless of what the outside world thinks. When they do risk parting, it has nothing to do with any outside opinion, which must have set so many critical teeth on edge.

Indiewire

Indiewire

When the real suspense comes is when Vivian has to return to New York, and Cay's real insecurities swim to the surface. Vivian wants Cay to come with her and really commit to a new life, even if it may not work out. “If you want a sure thing, stay in Reno,” she tells Cay, who is hesitant to leave the comfortable world she knows. “Desert Hearts” likewise gives us no guarantees, only a glimpse of what could be a happy ending when Cay jumps on Vivian's train at the last minute, at least deciding to give Vivian another forty minutes to the next station. I can only hope she decided to take the ride for as long as it lasted.