'Promising Young Woman',' 'The Assistant' and 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' Writer-Directors on Their Socially Relevant Heroines

Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Alway and Julia Garner in The Assistant.
Angal Field/Focus Features; Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street

Sidney Flanigan in 'Never Rarely Sometimes Alway' and Julia Garner in 'The Assistant.'

The female filmmakers behind these awards contenders use sophisticated points of view and unusual, revealing camera choices to show us their heroines from the outside and also give us moving firsthand access to their experiences.

This season's many awards possibilities directed by women are as different as Nomadland, Chloé Zhao's expansive view of itinerant Americans today, and One Night in Miami, Regina King's tightly focused drama about soon-to-be Black icons in the 1960s. But within that range, one especially eye-opening trend has emerged.

Several women writer-directors have used bold aesthetics to reveal heroines grappling with the life-altering issues of abortion and sexual abuse. Eliza Hittman's subtle, eloquent Never Rarely Sometime Always, Kitty Green's taut The Assistant and Emerald Fennell's mordant dark comedy Promising Young Woman use sophisticated points of view and unusual, revealing camera choices to show us their heroines from the outside and also give us moving firsthand access to their experiences. These timely films, among the season's best, never clobber us with clumsy messages, and all three are notable for viewing #MeToo as a basic fact of life, not breaking news.

Hittman's Never Rarely is pared-down, quiet and absorbing. As 17-year-old Autumn travels from small-town Pennsylvania to New York City for an abortion, we stay with her perspective. The camera is often close up on Autumn's face, which is quite still, as actress Sidney Flanigan silently reveals the character's loneliness and trauma. Hittman captures the texture of Autumn's run-down hometown and the disorienting crowds and color of New York. But Hittman and Flanigan keep us aware of the character's sad, determined state of mind, reflected in an expression that is composed and tense. Hittman includes no explanatory dialogue, no wailing emotional scenes, even when Autumn's cousin becomes her confidant.

The understated style also relies on the graceful way the camera captures Autumn's experience. As she stares into a mirror, the camera moves from her face to her slightly swollen stomach, tacitly revealing her pregnancy. When she has a gynecological exam at a clinic, the camera moves across the length of her body on the table, lingers on her face, which briefly flinches in pain, and moves up to her raised hand clutching that of a counselor. She has admitted to the counselor that she has been forced into sex at least once, a passing mention that resonates through the film. Hittman's restraint creates a work of extreme emotional intimacy and realism.

Green effectively uses a similar low-key approach in The Assistant, charting one day in the life of an unnamed assistant who works for an abusive movie mogul. The face of Julia Garner, who plays the heroine, is impassive, yet we see her increasing unease as she picks up a stray earring from her boss' floor, and later takes a young woman to a hotel for him. Green's camera at times focuses on the menial details of the assistant's day, with overhead views of the bowl of cold cereal she eats or the crumpled sheet of paper that jams the copier. But the main aesthetic is aligned with Hittman's: a film entirely from the heroine's perspective, no explanatory dialogue, no overt emotion from the character, yet total awareness on our part of what she is experiencing. Even when the heroine brings her concerns to an HR executive, there is no high drama, just a sense of futility growing on her face. By embedding us in her life, and not bludgeoning its point, The Assistant deftly takes us inside her concerns about her own complicity.

Promising Young Woman, which stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, who avenges men's abusive behavior, has a very different style — witty, exuberant and visually colorful. But it also uses point of view to stunningly take us inside a traumatized heroine's world. Fennell cleverly creates a kind of visual jujitsu at the start, flipping from a male to a female perspective. We first see Cassie as men observing her in a club do: a drunken train wreck, easy pickings. One of them takes her to his place, and when Cassie drops her act to reveal that she's sober, the camera shows us a close-up of her face as it changes. The man only hears her voice confronting him, suddenly sober and ominous, saying, "What are you doing?" From then, we are in on her act, but in a subsequent scene the aesthetic holds: We see Cassie's facial expression change before the man's does, and then observe his terrified reaction.

The film is largely from Cassie's perspective, though, and Fennell withholds explanations about the events that set off her revenge until very near the end. Realistically, Cassie wouldn't need to spell that out to anyone around her.

Counterintuitively, by telling us less, these three brilliant, audacious films take us more fully and credibly into the worlds of their tough-minded, socially relevant heroines. This season may be the start of a dazzling new female aesthetic.

Caryn James is a film critic for BBC Culture and a freelance writer.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.