Flipping through the catalog of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the faces of American narrative filmmakers are unsurprisingly still predominantly male, reflecting the state of the industry at large. However, there are a few renegade female faces that thankfully interrupt the gender homogeneity. Whether their films have overtly feminist subject matter that directly relates to women’s issues or their films deal with sexuality in a more genderless realm alongside other equally important themes, these women brought a unique and much-needed voice to the cinematic landscape of American narrative film at the country’s most attention-grabbing festival.
How the Garcia Girls Spent their Summer follows three generations of women—daughter, mother, and grandmother—as each deals with a complex and personal battle between newly aroused sexual desires and societal as well as religious norms. Quirky, witty, and heartfelt, the film poses these three women’s individual explorations against the judgments they make about one another’s choices. The result moves the characters from introspection to enlightenment. Garcia Girls is happily unapologetic in embracing female subject matter not often seen on screen—from masturbation and menstruation to sex in the over-60 set.
“To an extent I wrote the three women as virgins,” says 27-year-old writer-director Georgina Garcia Riedel. “You could have lost your virginity at a very young age, but maybe you have an experience 20 years later that blows your mind, and it’s like losing your virginity all over again. I tend to make films about topics that scare me myself—as my characters are exploring, I’m exploring, too.”
Riedel wrote the film during her last year at the American Film Institute’s Masters program in directing. After graduating and having her thesis short film One Night It Happened play the festival circuit, she worked a series of receptionist jobs before taking the plunge and making her first feature with the financial support of her family. “Making the film and finishing it was hard, but the hardest part was deciding to do it in the first place. The fear of being a professional office girl for the rest of my life made me finally do it,” she says with a laugh.
Riedel had a wonderfully powerful cast of female leads to help her make that leap of faith. Veteran actresses Elizabeth Peña and Lucy Gallardo joined new sensation America Ferrera, who made her on-screen Sundance debut in the 2002 hit Real Women Have Curves. In Garcia Girls, Ferrera returns as yet another strong-willed, sharp-mouthed Latina teenager.
“Young women are represented in film as timid victims of circumstance for whom coming of age is a hard, horrible thing,” Ferrara says. “It’s a refreshing feeling to be able to play a young girl who’s smart and self-assured. Growing up, I never fit the stereotype of an angst[-filled] teenager so it’s wonderful to have a more diverse representation of what a young women is.”
Also at Sundance this year, Saving Face blasts gender taboos and explores cross-generational women poignantly and entertainingly. Set in the Chinese-American immigrant community of Flushing, Queens, Saving Face follows a 48-year-old widowed mother who is banished from her parents’ home and neighborhood when she is impregnated out of wedlock by a younger man. She goes to live with her daughter Wil, a successful doctor, who in turn enrages her mother by coming out as a lesbian. By the end of the film, both women find the strength to be who they really are and learn to understand each other better.
“The film was a love letter to my mother after I saw her being ostracized by her Chinese immigrant community,” says 33-year-old American director Alice Wu of her first feature film. “Specifically for women there’s a clock on us for appropriate times to do things—but we actually get so many chances in life to decide to live honestly. I wrote Saving Face to say no matter what your sexuality, love can start at any point in life you want it to.”
Saving Face also radiates with strong female performances. Acclaimed actress Joan Chen plays the displaced matriarch and joins newcomers Michele Krusiec, who plays Wil, and Lynn Chen, who plays Wil’s girlfriend Vivian, to create a diverse emotional exploration between these three women trying to find their way in rigid community traditions.
“It was a blessing to play someone who knows what they want and isn’t ashamed to ask for it,” Lynn Chen says. “My character represents a lot of women who don’t exist on screen. I hope it’s not only inspiring for women, Asian women, and lesbians, but normalizes these sort of characters for everyone.”
The film’s message is no doubt inspired by Wu’s own history, having daringly quit her career as a computer engineer in Seattle at age 28 to move to New York and learn what it takes to make a movie. It was a move that earned her the respect of her actresses.
“I’m inspired by Alice,” Krusiec says. “I was so impressed by her decision to leave her old career and enter into filmmaking. It is empowering to see another woman really take a risk and believe in herself. Being a fellow female artist, you see a lot of repression and inability to have the courage and strength to express what you hope to accomplish. And she really took bull by horns.”
Wu’s strength paid off. Five years later she was in production and Sony Pictures Classics bought Saving Face before its premiere screening at the Toronto Film Festival this past September.
Another first-time narrative filmmaker who found great success and buzz at Sundance is Miranda July. Her film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, is an experimental narrative that weaves together an ensemble cast of new actors—ranging from young children to an elderly couple—whose stories flow in and out of each other with the grace and coincidence of real life. All the characters, young and old, explore their sexuality with a raw sensibility, but it is the candid portrayal of the film’s youth that is truly innovative.
“It’s about children and power,” July says. “The kind of power they have in their own right and even over adults. The girls in the film are trying to figure out how to move things forward, how to grow up and become women.”
Although a new feature filmmaker, July, who also stars in the film, is no stranger to film and performance. Ten years ago she started making short films and putting out a video chain letter of girl-directed cinema called Joanie 4 Jackie. She released audio recordings on famed underground record label Kill Rock Stars, and took her shows from punk clubs to theatres. It was her reputation as an artist that got her backburner script made into a film—from the screenwriting and filmmaking labs at Sundance to finding a producer and getting backing from IFC Films and Film Four, to finally debuting her film in competition at the festival.
“One thing I would say about directing the movie is that I was pretty emotional the whole time,” July says. “It wasn’t unusual for me to cry. And there were moments where I felt I was completely undermining myself. Now, I want that to be the new thing that’s OK. When there are millions of women directors, there’s going to be all sorts of different ways to direct.”
Directing with female themes consciously in the forefront is a method that another Sundance filmmaker, Melissa Painter, favors, even though the main protagonist of her film Steal Me is a 15-year-boy. The film follows Jake, a runaway boy who identifies himself through kleptomania and promiscuity. He moves in with a friend’s family, attempts to win the love of his friend’s mother in the absence of his own, has an affair with an older single mother next door, and bonds with a sexually promiscuous girl his own age.
“I cannot imagine making this film not as a woman,” Painter says. “It’s 100 percent based on my experience of becoming a woman who has gone through being a promiscuous teen, an irresponsible neighbor, and now a mother in a marriage.”
Steal Me is Painter’s third feature film since completing NYU’s graduate film school. But it is the first time that she’s had a feature film at Sundance. While she believes that “what people want from woman directors is to tell stories that other people can’t tell,” Painter also feels that there is a type of film necessary to grab the attention of the Sundance festival gatekeepers.
“With this film, I decided I was over being wandering and lyrical and pretty,” she says. “It doesn’t do me any good to tell my story my way if no one wants to see it the way that I told it. I wrote Steal Me to be loud, big, and shake people enough that it would be accessible to a programming department.”
Regardless of when and how one ultimately winds up at Sundance, there’s still no doubt that being one of the women in the catalog brings attention to a filmmaker’s work and can be a major career turner.
Or, as Amy Redford, daughter of Sundance founder Robert Redford and star of festival film This Revolution, says: “If you can look away from the people in stilettos and all that madness and by-product, Sundance is a wonderful way for women to mine the experience of their colleagues and make connections with producers and executives.”