From time to time there is a banner year for female characters. A great fuss is made about how movie-land has changed, allowing women into a club that hadn’t previously given them more than a handful of meaty roles at a time.
2005 was not one of those years.
Most of the movies that earned the best reviews and the most little statues last year were stories that explored the craggy, unstable territory of modern manhood: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, A History of Violence, Grizzly Man, Hustle & Flow. These are all serious and wonderful films and proof that the film industry—at least the independent one—is healthy and vital and brimming with talent. But where does that leave the ladies?
The Independent decided to shine a light on five movies whose male filmmakers bucked that trend. Their films revolved around women, and they elicited memorable performances from their female leads. Of course, there were incredible female filmmakers—Miranda July for example—who released films with compelling and realistic portraits of women, but we wanted to look at what happened when filmmakers directed—and in some cases wrote—across gender, attempting nuanced and believable portraits of the opposite sex. The result is five very different movies about a broad range of women.
Rodrigo Garcia almost single handedly made up for the dearth of juicy female roles with Nine Lives, a series of anecdotes that act as windows into the lives of several very different women. Garcia has long kept a notebook of ideas, and when he began to write this script, he plucked nearly a dozen vignettes from it, which he then developed and strung together. Garcia chose to put women at the center of each segment simply because he likes his female characters the best: “The men that I write all feel like versions of myself. The women feel more differentiated,” he says. “The men are often a little too good or a little too bad. I never feel they’re as complex.”
Each of Nine Lives’ segments is filmed in real time without cuts. Garcia worked with each of his actresses (Elpidia Carrillo, Robin Wright Penn, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Amy Brenneman, Amanda Seyfried, Sissy Spacek, and Kathy Baker) for two days, rehearsing exhaustively on the first and filming on the second. They’d do as many takes as they could until they were too tired to continue or the light ran out. Then Garcia would choose the best version. The whole thing cost about $500,000. Because Garcia doesn’t rely on edits, the blocking is often dazzling complex. The camera stays close as the actors navigate tight spaces, which results in a real intimacy with the characters: a fraught nurse confronts her tormentor; a wistful and lonely mother contemplates infidelity; a loyal, winsome daughter ferries messages between her parents, looking for a way into adult life.
In the 10 to 14 minutes allotted to them, Garcia’s nine women show a remarkable range of emotion. No portrait is static and although many take place somewhere ordinary—a grocery store, a bedroom, a motel—each chapter illustrates the moment when a fundamental shift occurs in the character’s life. “I don’t write films about people in the Himalayas or people robbing banks in Shanghai,” Garcia says. “Writing about women is my way of going somewhere.”
In the opening story, Carrillo’s Sandra plays a prison inmate on her best behavior, eager to redeem herself and find a way back to her daughter. But the reckless rage that apparently landed her in jail seethes beneath her surface and finally erupts. It is a powerful beginning and a harbinger of what seems to be Garcia’s larger point: While we may try to be our best selves, to contain the past, our darker angels always live within us, affecting everything we do and everyone we love.
What’s remarkable about Garcia’s film is that it resists easy synthesis: The parts do not form a single narrative arc or resolve neatly, and while familiar faces reappear throughout the film, this is not a movie about how connected we all are. Rather, it’s a film about how a life can pivot in a flash. “I’ve always been interested in small stuff,” Garcia says, “in a miniature or a moment that says something about the rest of the life.” There are no happy endings, only moments of quiet revelation.
Without its three female characters, Phil Morrison’s film about a fractious Southern family would be an exercise in verbal economy. Few words are shared by the three very different—but equally reserved—men.
Instead, Junebug is filled up by its complex women. Embeth Davidtz’ sophisticated Madeleine speaks in a dulcet British accent that makes her eager generosity imperceptible to her guarded new in-laws. Madeleine’s perfect manners and too-polished surface mask her genuine need to know and be known by her new relatives. Celia Weston’s tart matriarch, Peg, isn’t easily won over by Madeleine. She loves her children fiercely and wants only to protect them from outside forces that might make their lives seem small or shabby. Amy Adams’ effusively optimistic Ashley is one of the finest performances of the year. She prattles on, at first appearing to be a slightly dim naive and ultimately revealing herself to be the heart of the film and of the Johnston clan, because as Morrison points out, her relentless positivity draws out the best in everyone.
Morrison resists dividing his characters along gender lines (quiet men and the women who love them) and instead groups them according to something more elusive. On the one side there are Peg and her two sons, Madeleine and Ashley’s husbands. This trio seems hopelessly trapped inside themselves and unable to believe the best about anyone else. In the other camp are Ashley and Eugene, Peg’s husband: patient, loving, and unflagging in their belief that all will turn out for the best. Madeleine, says Morrison, must find her way into this last category or a crucial balance is lost. “All the spouses temper each other,” he says.
Morrison, who directed the film from a script written by his childhood friend Angus MacLachlan, grew up in Winston Salem, North Carolina, where the film is set. Though Junebug is about his hometown, Morrison says he was wary of falling into the trap of “write what you know.” He didn’t want to get too cozy in common stereotypes.
“Write what you don’t know about what you think you know,” Morrison says with a laugh. “If you’re a guy, doing a project where the weight is with the women characters is one way of doing that.”
Funny Ha Ha
In the first scene of Andrew Bujalski’s debut film, Marnie, a recent college graduate living in Boston, wanders, tipsy, into a tattoo parlor and suggests a couple of goofy ideas for the artist to ink into her flesh.
“You really haven’t thought about what you want,” says the proprietor.
“Oh I’ve thought about it,” Marnie replies.
And she has. She just hasn’t made a decision.
Just like Marnie, Bujalski’s film thinks hard without drawing any pat conclusions. Funny Ha Ha tracks a few weeks in Marnie’s life as she looks for a job, searches aimlessly for a relationship, tries on a couple different hobbies. Like many recent grads, Marnie is waiting for the certainty of adulthood to catch up with her.
Bujalski wrote the screenplay for Funny Ha Ha in 1999, and although it won a Someone to Watch Award at the Independent Spirits in 2004, Funny Ha Ha only found distribution last year.
Bujalski based his heroine on his good friend, Kate Dollenmayer, whom he then cast as his lead. “I somehow got the notion in my head that she’d be a good person to try to build a film around,” he says. “I took a wild guess that her charisma would translate to the screen and could support a feature film.”
Shot on location on 16mm film on a budget of less than $100,000, Bujalski’s movie has the naturalistic style of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, though there is little melodrama in Funny Ha Ha. The action is resolutely small and the characters uniformly subdued. It is a portrait of that time after college when everything is open and unresolved—which scares the crap out of Marnie. She huddles for safety in apartments that look like dorm rooms, wears beat-up sneakers and torn jeans, and drinks lots of cheap beer.
Dollenmayer, perhaps because she is sort of playing herself, exudes a tentative sweetness that perfectly matches Bujalski’s cinematic style. She is sad-eyed and self-effacing, melancholic from loneliness, but still unmistakably hopeful. Bujalski has a genuine ear for how people talk to each other—how difficult it is to ask for what we really want and say what we really mean. In one scene Marnie has the perfect opportunity to confess her feelings to her crush, Alex. Instead, she agrees with him, several times, that now is not really a good time to talk.
Centering his film on a female character, says Bujalski, 29, was a way to get a bit of distance on all too familiar territory. “I put a lot of myself in [Marnie],” he says, “and having that necessary half-step of distance inherent to the gender switch made it much easier for me to write the character.”
Everyone’s first question for Duncan Tucker is: Why did you cast a woman to play Bree? Transamerica’s central character, played by Felicity Huffman, is a transsexual male in the final steps of gender reassignment. Though she dresses as a woman, has undergone facial reconstructive surgery, and has been taking hormones for years, for the majority of the film Bree still has the physical trappings of maleness. “It’s simple,” answers Tucker, “I think of Bree as a woman.”
Tucker’s movie covers a lot of well-known ground: the open road that leads to self-discovery, hilarious moments of mistaken identity, a mystically wise and accepting Indian. But his protagonist defies what Tucker calls the American penchant for cut and dried duality: black or white, blue or red, gay or straight, man or woman. Bree is essentially still both when the film begins. Though she knows herself to be female, she must face her fears and uncertainties—as well as her upcoming surgery—in order to truly become a woman.
At the beginning of the film, Bree is deeply prim and proper. Despite her radical decision, she is an inherently traditional person. She covers up her body in long skirts and high collars and uses her intelligence as a buffer to keep new acquaintances at arm’s length. She recognizes—quite rightly—that if she lets them in and they discover her secret, she risks profound destabilization.
Over the course of the film, Tucker and Huffman let Bree loosen up. She is at first disconcerted, but ultimately renewed. She wears clothes that make her look like a woman comfortable in her own skin, and in a final revealing shot, we see Bree naked, as the woman she has become. Tucker shot the film with a handheld camera, a technique usually used to unsettle an audience. In this case, it brings us in a bit closer. “Bree is an old character,” says Tucker, “just with a twist.”
Chris Terrio’s first feature, Heights, is a daisy-chain ensemble drama—a genre which seemed to be in vogue last year. The film concerns the lives of Diana (Glenn Close), a charismatic and successful actress whose face adorns the sides of bus shelters, her daughter Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a struggling photographer unsure about whether to marry Jonathan (James Marsden), a character whose conflicted sexuality ensnares him in a love triangle with Alec (Jesse Bradford), a talented young actor who auditions for Diana. And so on.
Though the movie gives almost equal time to each of the characters, it is Close’s Diana who holds the center of the story. She is an unrepentant narcissist whose incredible talent allows her to get away with bad behavior, though she is trying to be a better mother to a daughter who sorely needs her advice and support. She ultimately succeeds in that most difficult of roles by holding herself back from explicitly telling Isabel what to do. Instead, Isabel discovers what she needs to know on her own and then turns to her mother for comfort. It is a rare nuanced portrayal of an adult mother-daughter relationship, one that changes for the better only after both parent and child have grown up.
Terrio says he was drawn equally to all his characters, gay and straight, male and female. “What’s exciting to me is writing about someone who wants something badly and is having trouble getting it.” In Diana, he found just such a character. Although she is a fierce and accomplished person who out-earns her wayward, much younger husband, she wants desperately to balance her family against her career. “I think a lot of women have to manage that dynamic,” says Terrio. And what more fitting tribute to women than a realistically complicated struggle?