Critic's Notebook: At Sundance 2015, Ladies First

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

Nicole Kidman in the Outback, a mean gymnast's redemption, a teen girl's sexual awakening, Lithuanian lesbians and more — the opening days of Sundance 2015 provided an unusually expansive showcase for female-driven films

It’s been well and widely documented: the paucity of women both behind the camera and in front of it is a systemic American movie industry problem that’s not going away. 2014, especially, was singled out as a particularly impoverished period for female performances, and — the salt on the wound — the year’s most celebrated woman filmmaker, Selma’s Ava DuVernay, found herself locked out of the boys’ club that is the Best Director Oscar field.

The opening days of Sundance 2015 unfolded like a corrective to that grim state of affairs, reminding us that while the line between studios and independents is increasingly blurred, there are a few areas — gender diversity among them — in which there’s a clear and unmistakable difference. Screening schedules on Thursday, Friday and Saturday were indeed packed with female-driven works — movies directed by or about women, featuring the kind of plum roles we rarely see actresses enjoying in multiplex fare.

Given the recent spate of think pieces about “Hollywood’s woman problem,” the prevalence of women filmmakers and performers during the first part of the festival seemed to cheer attendees, earning thumbs up on Twitter and at coffee shops along Main Street here in Park City.

Self-congratulatory pats on the back aside, providing a platform for women is something Sundance director John Cooper considers part of the festival’s DNA. “The Sundance Film Festival annually emerges as a prime showcase for talented female filmmakers and actors,” he said via email, noting that 32% of the movies screening at this edition were directed by women (compared to only 4.4% of the top 100 movies at the box office each year from 2002 to 2012). “There’s heightened intensity, emotion and drama in many of this year’s films, and much of that is seen in films by women or with women in key roles.”

Some of his personal favorites are Liz Garbus’ Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? and Leslye Headland’s rom-com Sleeping with Other People, as well as performances by Sarah Silverman (I Smile Back), Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), Toni Collette (Glassland) and Melissa Rauch, star and co-writer of opening night selection The Bronze.

That film, a raunchy-sweet feature-length debut from Bryan Buckley, got a lukewarm reception, with many complaining that the main character played by Rauch was too unlikeable. A pathologically foul-mouthed, foul-humored former gymnast who accepts a gig coaching a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed up-and-comer, Rauch’s Hope Annabelle Greggory is the latest protagonist in the “mean lady” sub-genre of American comedy that includes works like Young Adult, Bad Teacher and Identity Thief. While there are legitimate arguments to be made against all those films (particularly the latter two), it’s hard not to notice how uneasy women who don’t play nice can make viewers — especially given the whoops and cheers that the Hangover bros and Seth Rogen & Co. elicit from audiences.

Read more 'The Bronze': Sundance Review

The Bronze doesn’t always try hard enough; there are only so many laughs to be wrung from dirty words pronounced in a prim Midwestern accent. But the film and its talented star (best known for her work on TV series The Big Bang Theory) commit fully to the rude, crude creature at the center of it all: with her high pony tail and harsh bangs, unflattering track suit and dyspeptic demeanor, Hope is a bracing comic creation, and the movie allows her to behave badly — punching her father, poisoning her protégé, hurling insults at anyone who nears her toxic orbit — without humiliating her. To the filmmakers’ credit, and Rauch’s, Hope doesn’t start out monstrous and end up endearing; she’s both at once, all along — a ferocious caricature of a woman with shades of realness.

Spiky, complex female characters were also on display in Stockholm, Pennsylvania, another debut feature that screened early in the fest — this one directed by a woman, Nikole Beckwith. Revolving around a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) who struggles to readjust to the outside world, and reconnect with her mother (Cynthia Nixon), after spending 20 years with her kidnapper, the film begins as a bleak, low-key drama before careening off the rails into psycho-thriller territory. If there’s a (nearly) saving grace, it’s the distinctive duo of actresses, both of whom give richly realized performances in roles that don’t always make sense.

Read more 'Stockholm, Pennsylvania': Sundance Review

Ronan is one of those performers who can convey a racing mind and swirling emotions behind a mask of blankness, while Nixon, the kind of terrific, over-40 actress Hollywood has no idea what to do with, heroically navigates one of the least persuasive character arcs I’ve ever seen. If Beckwith has a strength as a director based on the evidence of this wildly uneven film, it’s the attention she lavishes on her leading ladies.

Another selection from a first-time female director about children gone missing and mothers left reeling, Kim Farrant’s tense and atmospheric Strangerland also features Nicole Kidman’s strongest performance in a while. Kidman has played a lot of famous figures, divas and head cases, diving into “big” roles with an intensity that too often translates into an excess of actressy sighing. Here, it’s refreshing to see her slip into the skin of an ostensibly “ordinary” woman — an Outback housewife whose troubled teen daughter and young son vanish into the dusty vastness — and embrace the Aussie accent she always seems to be struggling to suppress in her American roles.

The second half of Strangerland lunges from procedural toward something riskier and trickier — an exploration of the interplay between motherhood and sexual identity — and Farrant loses control, injecting the narrative with a lurid nightmarishness that feels overheated. As is often the case, scenes depicting female desire — gasp! — prompted giggles, as well as a fair share of walk-outs.

Read more 'Strangerland': Sundance Review

American audiences tend to squirm at frank images of female sexuality (see the freak-out over last year’s Blue is the Warmest Color), the kind of which have long been a trope of European arthouse cinema (case in point: Alante Kavaite’s The Summer of Sangaile, or the “Lithuanian lesbian movie” as I’ve heard more than one male critic call it here, a wispy Sapphic romance featuring lots of dewy close-ups of peach fuzz, goose bumpy flesh and nipples).

What a pleasant surprise, then, to see people swoon for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a full-hearted, visually inventive, nearly note-perfect adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel about a San Francisco high-schooler having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. A smashing directorial debut by Marielle Heller, this is the rare American crowd-pleaser to bring us right inside a young woman’s sexual awakening: the lust and self-loathing, the longing and the narcissism, but also the all-consuming sensory pull of it.

Heller achieves a warm tonal balance, blending an insider’s empathy and an adult’s knowing wryness, and draws superb supporting turns from Kristen Wiig as the flighty mother and Alexander Skarsgard as the object of desire. But the movie belongs to its star, British newcomer Bel Powley. With her yearning saucer eyes, kewpie-doll face and guilelessly witty line readings, she’s expressive without ever telegraphing her emotions.

The discovery of a new female director and actress who may be destined for great things was a thrill — and further proof that Sundance, whatever its annoyances, does sometimes make good on its mission of nudging talented people from the margins into the spotlight. Whether or not Hollywood finds them there, is, of course, another story.

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