Like the blistering blues song by Janis Joplin that gives the movie its title, Lissette Feliciano’s Women Is Losers has attitude to spare. Beginning in 1967 and concluding on the 1973 day when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, the drama views the unenlightened past through the lens of the more evolved and still exasperated present. When the central character, a resolute Latina, is told what she can’t or shouldn’t do because she’s female — a frequent occurrence — she might address the audience directly with a comment, or someone else might shoot a knowing glance our way. Feliciano takes chances with her material. Not all of them pay off.
The writer-director begins her debut feature with a fourth-wall-shattering scene of domestic chaos, in 1972, that encapsulates the film’s strengths as well as its soft spots. A vampy blond (Alessandra Torresani) notes that most movies about this period would focus on a stereotype like her rather than the hardworking and unglamorous Celina (Lorenza Izzo), who’s at the center of this story. The meta angle is taken a step further: We’re advised of the production’s budget limitations and the filmmakers’ inability to “dress the street” in a period-appropriate way (a preemptive signal to overlook, say, a later glimpse of an anachronistic Applebee’s).
This winking bit of stage setting is vibrant and expectation-defying, and a nifty illustration of Celina’s declaration that what follows is “a story about making do with what you’ve got.” In those opening minutes, Celina and her unreliable husband, Mateo (Bryan Craig), also deliver a mini-lecture about America, and we get the first taste of the movie’s tendency to overexplain. Feliciano’s mix of social commentary and old-school melodrama can be sharp, but it can also be distractingly on-the-button.
With its working-class San Francisco setting, the film brings to mind Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight, which also revolved around a young female protagonist and an enlisted man. Whether by design or coincidence, Feliciano’s movie picks up precisely when Savoca’s leaves off, in 1967. Celina and her best friend, the gutsier and more experienced Marty (Chrissie Fit), attend parochial high school, and both become involved with soldiers.
Home life is trying for Celina. Her swaggering misogynist of a father, Juan (Steven Bauer), is a mean and petty drunk, and her put-upon mother, Carolina (Alejandra Miranda), takes the path of least resistance, always siding with him rather than with her increasingly rebellious daughter. But Juan isn’t the only one with antiquated views of women’s place in the scheme of things. At a welcome-home party for Mateo, who’s been discharged from the Army because of an injury, Marty and her boyfriend, the still-serving Carlos (Shalim Ortiz), separately advise the would-be lovers on how to approach each other. Their counsel is cobwebbed with oldfangled notions, still widely accepted at the time, of how men and women should behave.
During the party scene, the male-female dynamic swings briefly into musical-extravaganza mode with a spirited dance number, set to a Tito Puente classic. It’s one of the film’s more successful stylistic excursions. Another is an exceptionally good narrative segue, just a minute long. Celina, alone and judged because she’s now pregnant as a result of that celebratory night, moves down a long hallway lined with her peers, parents, teachers and Mateo, who has taken up with the blond from the movie’s opening sequence. As she enters the corridor, Celina is a pregnant teenager, her plan to undergo an illegal abortion having been sidelined by disaster. When she reaches the end of the hall, she’s cradling her infant son.
As an unmarried Latina with a child, Celina has at least three strikes against her. In school she was a math whiz, enamored of the logic and “fairness” of the straight line connecting A to B. Good luck finding that in the real world, where she’s scrimping and saving to buy a house but can’t get a bank to give her the time of day, even though one of her two jobs is in a bank.
A condescending female boss, Minerva (Liza Weil), gradually becomes a crucial ally, while a friendly male boss, Gilbert (Simu Liu), turns from mentor to villain before redeeming himself — none of this very convincing. Gilbert’s history lesson in the exploitation of Chinese citizens in the United States, presented in square-frame black-and-white, self-consciously stops the movie cold, its resonance with Celina’s story more heavy-handed than organic. Running through the main character’s busyness is a not-quite-harmonic chord of American Dream optimism, and faith in compounded interest, that feels slightly naïve from a contemporary perspective. (By contrast, we have the economic realities and mournful ache of The Last Black Man in San Francisco.)
Some of Celina’s triumphs might be hard to buy, but Izzo — who had a brief, memorable turn as the Italian wife of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — makes her setbacks and frustrations ring true, and especially her determination to defy conventions that are illogical, unjust and sexist. When circumstances lead Celina back to the troubled Mateo, her readiness to believe in love is no less persuasive. The wedding sequence Feliciano crafts, with terrific camerawork (Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi) and editing (John-Michael Powell), is set to Joplin’s cover of “Get It While You Can,” a perfect double-edged blend of romance and pragmatism.
In “Women Is Losers” (which isn’t on the soundtrack), Joplin sings that “men always seem to end up on top.” Feliciano understands that it isn’t quite that simple, and even as she exposes ridiculous inequities against women, she also illustrates, albeit it in broad strokes, how social codes of class, race and ethnicity can leave men broken and mad at the world. “How do I keep you from becoming one of them?” Celina murmurs to her sleeping son. The screenplay wavers between such unforced insight and dialogue that feels stilted or states the obvious.
With its heroine beleaguered and persevering, Women Is Losers is a fairy tale, and at times a drolly fractured one (to evoke a bit of ’60s pop culture). But even when the narrative around Celina tries too hard or falls flat, there’s true grit in her resilience.
Production company: Look at the Moon Pictures
Cast: Lorenza Izzo, Bryan Craig, Chrissie Fit, Simu Liu, Steven Bauer, Liza Weil, Alessandra Torresani, Lincoln Bonilla, Shalim Ortiz, Alejandra Miranda, Cranston Johnson, Ivana de Maria, Liisa Cohen
Director-screenwriter: Lissette Feliciano
Producers: Lissette Feliciano, Luis David Ortiz, Andrea Chung
Executive producers: Lorenza Izzo, Cecilia Ramos, Brooks Robertson, Ghalib Datta, Ted Chung
Director of photography: Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi
Production designer: Susan Alegria
Costume designer: Liz Baca
Editors: John-Michael Powell
Composer: Frederik Wiedmann
Casting director: Claire Koonce
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)