directed by women

52 Films By Women: Paris Is Burning (1990)



By Andrea Thompson

It's often remarked that great art comes from pain. Nowadays there's sort of an addendum, in that said pain is often co-opted by the those in power. This was already well underway by the time Jennie Livingston's documentary “Paris Is Burning” was released in 1990, which follows New York's drag scene in the 1980s, and the many peole who made it what it was.

Past tense is key here. By this time, voguing had become mainstream, with a prime example being Madonna's Vogue video that year. There's always going to be some sense of melancholy to any snapshot of the New York that existed in the 80s and 90s, fictional or otherwise. At least we have “Paris Is Burning” as a chronicle of this vibrant community, which mostly consists of LGBT people of color, and who have only barely been represented in mainstream cinema. Or for that matter, even acknowledged for their cultural contributions.

The first words spoken are from one of the film's subjects, who says, “I remember my dad used to say, 'You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two, just that they're black, and they're a male. But you're black, and you're a male, and you're gay. You're gonna have a hard fucking time.' And he said, 'If you're gonna do this, you're gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.'”

The rest of the film is how various people in this cope with the truth behind these words in this particular time and place, which is a conversation that is also only beginning to be acknowledged (and more often than not, denied) by the mainstream. And the balls, which many have dismissed as spectacle, are an important part of life for many. Taking place in shabby rooms, they mostly consist of people of color cheering on those who walk, showing off the fabulousness of their outfits...or in some cases, their lack of them.

While many of the people on camera don't delve into too much detail about their backgrounds, stories of their vulnerability are rampant. Many of them ran away to New York City in search of a home, while others were thrown out by homophobic and transphobic families. The balls are where they can be with those who share their identity, passions, and interests. They can feel okay about being who they are, and they can also aspire to be who they want to be.

Those who have such hobbies are generally natural performers with the personalities to match. But time and again,, they are shown just how little place their ambitions have in America, especially in the 80s, where practically every form of media depicted white people as emblems of the ideal life, whether it was middle class or the more opulent one that was aspired to more and more as Wall Street became a force unto itself.

It's hardly surprising that such an ambitious exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality provoked controversy, which continues to this day. Director Jennie Livingston was able to capture so much of this world partly because she is a queer woman herself, but her detractors probably have a point when they state that her whiteness held her back. That said, while many of the people in the film have met ends both triumphant and tragic, Livingston has only made shorts since, and has only recently began developing another film. “Paris Is Burning” may have gone to win many awards, and even perhaps help change how documentaries are nominated for Academy Awards, but Livingston herself never became a prolific filmmaker. (If you really want the ultimate rundown of the film and everyone in it, check out's ultimate viewing guide.)

Yet for all its flaws, the conversations “Paris Is Burning” raises continue to be relevant. “All minorities know it's a white America,” Pepper LaBeija person mused. “Any other nationality not of a white set knows this and accepts this till the day they day die. That is everybody's dream and ambition as a minority - to live and look as well as a white person.” One of the images used during this statement is a cover of Forbes magazine. One of the smiling men on that cover is Donald Trump.

52 Films By Women: In the Cut (2003)



By Andrea Thompson

Seeing as how Valentine's Day is next week, I thought I'd devote this week's column to my more cynical side before I went all-out romantic for the holiday. So why not Jane Campion's 2003 film “In The Cut,” an erotic thriller that is also a kind of anti-love story? If that sounds hard to pin down, that's because it is, and critics seemed mostly unimpressed by it when it first came out. But “In the Cut” seems to be among a cadre of films directed by women in the early to mid-2000s, such as “Jennifer's Body” and “27 Dresses,” that are being rediscovered and reconsidered in light of our current times.

That said, “In the Cut” is also best appreciated as a product of its very specific time. As the film opens on a drab vision of NYC, the song Que Sera Sera plays, a seemingly cheerful number that's all about how unknowable our future is. It's certainly a concept that a city still reeling from the trauma and paranoia of 9/11 could relate to. Appropriately, the film's version of New York is steeped in shadow, and becomes increasingly as fractured as the unraveling mindset of its heroine Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan in a role originally written for Nicole Kidman, who is one of the film’s producers), a university professor.



Frannie is the kind of complex, conflicted woman that's still all too rare on-screen, and Meg Ryan throws her all into this role with relish. Saying that she plays against the adorable type she became known for is putting it mildly. One of the first things she does is accidentally stumble across a faceless man getting a blow job from an equally faceless woman. Campion makes us feel as uncomfortable and voyeuristic as Frannie with a close up of the woman's mouth, with a clear view of the guy's member, making me realize I was probably watching the unrated director's cut.

Things only get more uncomfortable for Frannie from there. It's soon pretty clear that the men around her, a diverse set who vary in age and race, nevertheless share an entitled mindset, demanding that Frannie cater to their expectations, romantic or otherwise. A student walks out when she, his teacher, has the gall to criticize his writing. An ex (played by Kevin Bacon) is openly stalking her and shows up in her apartment unannounced and uninvited when she comes home, all while expecting her to give him the relationship he thinks she's obligated to. “Did the fact that we slept together twice mean nothing to you?” he demands in an angry voice message.

In such a misogynistic, painfully familiar environment, the gruesome murder investigation she becomes entangled with soon seems little more than an extreme version of everyday life, with the casually demeaning language the men around her use to describe the women in their lives, to the outright violence that includes a severed limb being found in Frannie's garden. This bloody discovery is how she meets Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo, in probably his sexiest on-screen role), who becomes interested in her after he stops by her apartment to ask if she knows anything about the murder that took place so close to home.



Frannie is simultaneously fearful and fascinated by him as well, especially when she notices he has the same tattoo as the man she saw receiving oral in the bar, which she learns may have been the prelude to the murder. As the movie progresses, it's easy to see why many were turned off rather than on. Erotic thrillers are often a form of escapism, where the heat between two beautiful people, at least one of whom is typically very well-off, simmers until it explodes in a heat of passion. Women's sexuality becomes something of a sword and a shield, sometimes being used to manipulate a man, or explored by one who is suitably masculine, and thus swoonworthy. But “In the Cut” is more of a reflection of the real world, where women's sexuality is dangerous primarily because of how men react to it.

The story of her parents' courtship, and how it has affected her relationships, both with the men in her life and her half sister, is partly a reflection of this. Campion tells the story of how Frannie's parents met and fell in love through a giddily exaggerated, idealized romantic lens, only to bring it tumbling back to their grittier present by detailing its end, and how their father went on to fall hard again for someone else and marry about four times. This has led Frannie to become more reticent, while her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) embraces recklessness, what with her obsession with a married doctor and her residency above a strip club, which doubles as a skewed lens of how women are typically perceived. Pauline's eventual fate is one of the only facets of the film which is disappointingly predictable.

Another film would have Ruffalo's Malloy as the kind of exception, a dream boat amidst the crudity Frannie encounters. But there's a reason why Frannie is drawn to him even as she grows increasingly fearful of him. Ruffalo expertly plays Malloy as equal parts menacing and tender, often crude and only swoonworthy during the passionate, yet gentle love scenes. Meg Ryan may bare all, but it is Ruffalo who is more objectified, but not idealized, as he is able to bring Frannie pleasure in a way that allows her to experience a new kind of eroticism for her. As Frannie's world crumbles, Campion immerses us so well inside her unstable, grieving mental state we empathize with rather than condemn her increasingly idiotic decisions, which of course leads her straight into the killer's clutches.

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When that killer finally is revealed, he doesn't so much give an explanation for his actions as the feelings which drive him. By that point, we don't need the reasons, and that's probably the real reason why so many people were uncomfortable with this film. “In the Cut” so ultimately horrific is Campion's implicit suggestion that we don't need to look too far for the reasons why so many men feel entitled to kill women. We just need to look around us. At least there's cold comfort in the fact that Frannie is at least able to save herself and find her way back into Malloy's arms, who at last is able to give her a (temporary?) sense of safety.

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



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



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?



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



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



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



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



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)



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.



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.



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.



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 New Leaf

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By Andrea Thompson

When I saw Elaine May's “The Heartbreak Kid,” possibly the greatest anti-romantic comedy of all time, May became one of my favorite filmmakers. When I watched May's “A New Leaf” at the suggestion of my friend Sydney, I became convinced May is a national treasure.

“A New Leaf” was made in 1971, a year prior to May's far more famous work, “The Heartbreak Kid.” In the latter, she directed. In the former, she directs, writes, and stars. “A New Leaf” is also a far darker, and funnier movie. The premise? After wealthy playboy Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) discovers he's spent all of his money and is now penniless, he decides to marry a wealthy woman. Then kill her and walk away with the money.

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May quickly establishes the meaningless, heartless world Henry resides in, where people care about possessions above all, and getting new ones as quickly as possible. It's just as quickly established that Henry isn't an outlier at all. He's lazy, uncaring, spends money on useless crap on the slightest whim, and that's just how he likes it. He has no ambitions to be anything else, and even if he did, he doesn't have the skills required to do anything practical or useful. It makes the scene with his accountant, who has the task of telling him he has exhausted his wealth, not only humorous, but delightful. May gives us even more reason to relish the jeopardy with overwrought, dramatic music as Henry imagines a life without all the opulence he's become accustomed to.

“A New Leaf” also puts a hilarious spin on the loyal butler trope. Henry's valet Harold (George Rose) stands by him, not out of loyalty, but because Henry is one of the only men left who would actually use his services, or as Harold puts it, to “keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.” Yet Harold is the closest thing Henry has to a friend. He is the only one who knows what's going on (except for Henry's murderous intentions), and encourages his employer to fight for his right to remain among the idle rich.

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Henry's attempts to find a wife fail quite hilariously until he meets Henrietta, a botanist, at a tea party, who is played by Elaine May herself. In any other movie, their first moments together would be a meet-cute. She drops her glove, and her tea, in what would now be called adorkable. Henry comes to her rescue due to his discovery that Henrietta is both wealthy and without relatives. This not only causes Henrietta's to spill even more tea on their host Mrs. Cunliff's immaculate carpet, it inspires said host to call Henry a son of a bitch. Unfazed, Henry delivers one of the best retorts in cinematic history.

“You dare call me a son of a bitch?” Henry responds indignantly. “Madame, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time, but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque, and certainly the most boring I have ever encountered. You ought to be scorned and pitied. Good day, Mrs. Cunliff.”

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“A New Leaf” doesn't cater to our expectations of the genre. This isn't a story about two ridiculously attractive people falling for each other in a series of outrageously comic adventures. Nor is Elaine May interested in making Henrietta relatable. Just how would a woman so shy, inept, and isolated actually live? May shows us, especially after Henry overcomes a few obstacles, such as the objections of Henrietta's lawyer, and manages to marry her. He discovers his wife's life is in complete disarray. The mansion she lives in is a mess. The people who work for her take shameless advantage of her. And the lawyer who seemed to have Henrietta's best interests at heart turns out to have been in on everything. Henry quickly straightens things out, and takes over the management of Henrietta's life and accounts, all so he can use it to his advantage after he disposes of her. In the process, he actually becomes quite a competent, knowledgeable person who learns some useful skills, almost without becoming aware of it.

Of course, his fondness for Henrietta grows, in a fashion similarly unknown to him. Henrietta truly does change him for the better and make him more responsible and competent, even if he does have to check Henrietta's clothes for crumbs and price tags before she leaves for work every morning. The most touching moment is when Henrietta discovers a new species of plant and names it after Henry, thus granting his wish for a kind of immortality. His realization that he loves his wife is sweet, but it's more an acceptance that nothing in his life will turn out as he's expected from now on. When they walk off into the sunset together, we too breathe a sigh of relief that the danger is past.

#52FilmsByWomen: Daughters of the Dust

By Andrea Thompson

What with the first two movies for my #52FilmsByWomen project being rewatches, I knew it was time to watch something new. To truly make the third time the charm, I chose one of the most groundbreaking films I still hadn't seen, “Daughters of the Dust.”

That said, some of the ground broken with “Daughters of the Dust” is less an inspiration that an indictment. It was made in 1991, and it was apparently the first film directed by a black woman to receive a theatrical distribution in the U.S. Director Julie Dash would not go on to have the illustrious film career she earned, despite the near universal critical acclaim (the film has a rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) “Daughters of the Dust” received.

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Because “Daughters” isn't just good, it's spectacularly good. Roger Ebert called in a “tone poem,” and it's quite accurate. Set in 1902, the films tells the story of the Peazant family in the isolated Gullah community on the islands off the South Carolina coast who still practice many of the customs and culture of their formerly enslaved ancestors. The family is experiencing a series of crises, the main one being the desire of many to immigrate to the north and embrace a more modern lifestyle. Many among the younger generations have already left and adopted many of the beliefs they've encountered, including Christianity, which is in stark contrast to the pagan traditions of the elders. Others have yet to make a decision about whether to leave or stay.

Watching it is really a marvel, and I am frankly baffled that Dash ever managed to get it made. The film is told in a nonlinear fashion, and is narrated by the yet unborn child of Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers), who has her own problems. When she was on the mainland, she was raped by a white man. We know the child she's carrying is her husband Eli's (Adisa Anderson), but they do not. Eli is struggling with his feelings of helplessness over being unable to avenge his wife. It's made him ashamed of himself, and he's transferred those feelings of shame to Eula. But as matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) points out, Eula never belonged to him, and her rapist didn't steal her. She's his wife, not his property.

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Eula is actually coping with her rape far better. She is the one who is able to speak the truth about how she and other black women move through the world weighed down by history and self-hatred. Unlike other movies that see black women permanently damaged and sidelined by their struggles, they are able to live with what's happened to them without being defined by it. This is due to the strength of Dash's filmmaking abilities, as she embraces a deeply feminine gaze, infusing her female characters with strength and beauty without idealizing them, just as she does for their lush surroundings. And why not? She's telling the story of her ancestors as a descendant of the Gullah culture who chose to leave for New York.

“Daughters of the Dust” has been experiencing a revival in the last couple of years, partly due to Beyonce's visual album “Lemonade.” The latter work was actually the reason I was able to see Dash herself speak about making “Daughters” at a screening of “Lemonade.” Dash related her desire to depict black women, especially former slaves, in a different, more accurate way. The director reminisced about the old photographs she discovered in her research, and how the long, flowing white dresses of the women in them were a far cry from the drab garb and head scarves audiences saw on-screen. She also wanted to acknowledge slavery's effects on the black body in a less exploitative fashion. In her film, we see no scars or marks from the lash. Instead, the older generations have permanently discolored hands from their labor on the indigo plantations.

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The fact that Dash was unable to have a long career in film isn't just deeply unfair, it's a tragedy. She has gone on to inspire so many, from the aforementioned Beyonce to Ava DuVernay, but she seems unable to have the career she was born for, while so many male directors are allowed to fail upward. And after inspiring so many others, here's hoping she'll soon be able to again dream on the big screen herself.

#52FilmsByWomen: The Babbadook

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By Andrea Thompson

For Week 2 of my #52FilmsByWomen project, I decided to do another rewatch. But where last week's viewing was about kicking off the project in a fun, lighthearted way, viewing the horror offering “The Babbadook” was about being made uncomfortable in entirely new ways.

Make no mistake, Jennifer Kent's “The Babbadook” aims to make you uncomfortable, and it should. In the tradition of classic horror, it uses the monstrous specter that may or may not be terrorizing widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) as a vehicle for the more everyday pressures Amelia is subject to, which threaten to blossom into something truly horrific.

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When the movie starts, Amelia is already beginning to break under the weight of all the responsibilities she is expected to carry. As a carer for the elderly, she nurses others for a living, while at home she must provide all the financial, emotional, and physical support for her young, troubled son. But his difficulties are not the real reason Amelia seems to have trouble bonding with him. Seven years ago, she lost her husband Oskar in a car accident en route to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Amelia has been unable to move on, and her child has become a living reminder of what she has lost. Samuel can sense this, and his behavorial issues can be traced directly back to this one day, his birthday, and his mother's inability to fully accept what happened.

Compounding Amelia's issues is the fact that she's struggling with the two of the most taboo subjects in modern society-death and abivalence about motherhood. You're not supposed to talk about people dying, and you're not supposed to admit you have difficulty truly loving and bonding with your child. When death occurs, people are expected to firmly adhere to the rituals around it, then move on. In regards to motherhood, you are not only expected to provide an endless reserve of unconditional love and care, you are supposed to do it effortlessly and without complaint.

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So when The Babbadook manifests via a terrifying children's book, it's a stand-in for not only her grief, but the mental illness that threatens to engulf her. Her isolation increases, as her work, Sam's school, the police, and even her sister seems uninterested in providing any real help. Only after her son and elderly neighbor Mrs. Roach tell her they love her unconditionally when she's at her worst is Amelia able to find the strength to fight the monster. It's no coincidence that both of them are also easily able to talk about uncomfortable topics. Mrs. Roach knows she needs support, and her son knows she needs saving.

Is the Babadook real? A shared delusion? Or just something that Amelia's mind has manifested? Much like the spinning top at the end of “Inception,” we'll never get an answer. Amelia may be able to build a happy life after her struggles, but there's no fairy tale ending. She'll have to cope with the effects for the rest of her life, but the point is that in the end she's able to have one again.

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Jennifer Kent, who also wrote the film in addition to directing, is able to very eloquently capture so many aspects of the female experience. She is able to not only capture but allow us to identify with Amelia as a single mother desperately trying to protect her son even as she herself feels increasingly vulnerable. Her transformation and possible possession by the Babadook is genuinely terrifying, and Kent's terrific filmmaking abilities make it and the buildup to it truly frightening and unsettling, rather than just another stereotypical caricature of a madness very specific to women. Often when male directors try to take on women's experiences, they result in supbar offerings that involve great skill but no real insight, with “The Neon Demon” or “mother!” being a few recent examples. But Kent is able to show us the worst case scenario of a mother-child relationship going south while keeping Amelia someone worth sympathizing with and investing in. Here's hoping more filmmakers take note of how to not just make a “strong female character,” but a good one.

#52FilmsByWomen: Look Who's Talking (1989)

By Andrea Thompson

When a film critic who specializes in writing about women in pop culture wants to start the new year off right, what exactly does she do? In my case, she decides to take the 52 Films By Women pledge, wherein the pledgee commits to watching at least one film a week that was directed by a woman.

But what to watch first? To kick off such a big undertaking, I wanted to watch something I knew would be fun, yet not too familiar. So I did what I usually do when I want film recommendations, and asked the ladies of Film Twitter for ideas. I soon got a lot of great ones, one of the most popular being Amy Heckerling's 1995 smash hit “Clueless.” It's one of those results that's hardly any less welcome for being predictable, but I know that movie a little too well (if that's even possible). And so much has been written about it, there hardly seemed more to add, what with there being an oral history now.

But I remembered enjoying another, lesser-known film Heckerling made between two of her most iconic ones, the aforementioned “Clueless” and “Fast Times at Rdgemont High,” which was the 1989 comedy “Look Who's Talking.” It was about a woman named Mollie, played by Kirstie Alley, who gets pregnant and rejected by her married lover, then connects with smooth-talking cab driver James, played by John Travolta. Providing commentary throughout (from womb to roughly toddler age) is Mollie's son Mikey, voiced by Bruce Willis, who doesn't even try to sound like a kid. Yet Mikey still remains an adorably watchable presence, even if babies hardly have to do more than just look cute on-screen to hold our attention.

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The movie was successful enough to spawn two sequels, each of which failed to fully capture what made the original so damn fun. Yet the first still retains its charm, albeit in a rather predictable way. Mollie is the funny, deeply imperfect heroine who can't seem to see that the guy who's perfect for her has been right in front of her the whole time. She and James come together, are in danger of breaking apart, then finally unite at the end. The journey may be familiar, but it has a few more unique touches than we typically see even today.

For one, there's Mollie's job. Mollie doesn't have a job that's overly glamorous or demeaning. She doesn't work at a restaurant, in event planning, fashion, or even a shiny media workplace. So nope, no concerns about publishing, the state of TV, and thank god, no women's magazine that purports to be feminist while reinforcing the same old regressive messages. So what exactly does she do? She's an accountant, and her job is just that, a job she's good at that allows her to earn a good living. Moving up or finding another profession isn't a concern for her.

And Albert (George Segal), that married lover of hers? He's an executive who's not only married, he has kids. Wow. Even when Carrie cheated with Big in Sex in the City, there were no children involved. We never see the wife, but in a rather bold move, the movie does briefly show Albert with one of his kids, while Mollie is spying on him no less. Rather than this being a turning point wherein she contemplates how her actions might wreck this child's relationship with her father, Mollie chooses to dwell on how good Albert seems with his daughter. Such is the charm of Heckerling's script and Alley's comic chops that this moment manages to come off as funny rather than horrifying.

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Heckerling is able to pull this off (and more) mostly because her voice remains so strong throughout. It's very evident she wrote “Look Who's Talking” in addition to directing it. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that a woman who knows what pregnancy is like had a large role in shaping this film. Unlike many movies today, which turn pregnancy symptoms into gross-out humor, the jokes in “Look Who's Talking” come from the woman's view of what's happening to her body, not a male writer trying to use humor to deal with his discomfort over how a pregnancy conflicts with everything a woman is supposed to be. When Alley gets morning sickness, she doesn't vomit on anyone. When she can't stop eating, it isn't viewed as disgusting. When her breasts become enlarged, rather than being used as fuel for schtick, it's humorous because she looks so unlike herself. The movie even briefly mentions postpartum depression and does kind of a good job making it funny.

But one of the most striking things about Look Who's Talking is its casual depiction of how men feel entitled to comment on how women live their lives. When she is on the way to the hospital and experiencing her first pains, people constantly instruct her about Lamaze breathing, and how much better it is for the baby rather than drugs. She is really the only one who takes her pain seriously. It reminded me of my mother's stories of giving birth to my sister, and how she had to grab the doctor by the collar in order to get pain-reducing meds. It leads to a very funny baby stoner scene. Just trust me, it works. There really was a time when people weren't quite so hysterical about baby health.

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However, what really makes the movie unique is Mollie's love interest. John Travolta's James is a cab driver who drives her to the hospital as she's going into labor. He escorts her in, so James is assumed to be the father and ends up witnessing Mikey's birth. It's one of the more unusual meet-cutes, and they only end up meeting again afterwards because they decide to use each other. Mollie leaves her purse in the taxi, and James uses her address to fraudulently establish residency so he can put his grandfather in a good care home. Mollie decides to allow this, but only if Travolta agrees to babysit Mikey, and their resulting scenes together become some of the film's highlights. James isn't exactly an unambitious slacker; he has dreams of becoming a pilot. But he's also a bit of a hustler who's developed a number of tricks to avoid paying for anything. In any other film, James would be the bad boy who keeps Mollie hooked and unable to see the dreamy rich guy who could give her the life romcoms dream of. But it's James who turns out to be the responsible one who Mikey ends up seeing as a father, while Albert is the uncaring womanizer who refuses to be there for either Mollie or Mikey.

Perhaps this lack of concern for time-honored tradition was the reason “Look Who's Talking” received such mixed reviews. Most of them seemed to focus on the opening scene of the talking sperm who all journey towards the egg in the conception scene. It's an early indicator that the movie doesn't intend to take the male ego, pregnancy, or sex that seriously. Sure, “Look Who's Talking” is predictable in many ways, but critics have lauded other movies with that quality if they were enjoyable, which this movie is. Most just didn't seem to find the screwball antics funny even if they did happen to enjoy the performances. But the main, unspoken reason for the lack of appreciation seemed to be Heckerling's complete lack of interest in soothing the male ego, and perhaps that's what so many male critics found frustrating. This is a comedy about a deeply imperfect woman finding her happy ending in a New York that comes off as livable. It's telling that none of the characters are artists, or trying to be. They're just living regular lives, and she made that funny and interesting.

When asked in 2012 about about the fact that “only 5% of movies are directed by women,” Heckerling responded, “It’s a disgusting industry. I don’t know what else to say. Especially now. I can’t stomach most of the movies about women. I just saw a movie last night. I don’t want to say the name – but again with the fucking wedding and the only time women say anything is about men.”

Yet Heckerling managed to make movies that took women and their concerns seriously. Now that the industry is, or seems to be, undergoing some radical changes, hopefully films like hers won't be considered a rarity for much longer.