Favourite & Forgotten Films with Challenging Female Characters.

Favourite & Forgotten Films with Challenging Female Characters.

Since Andrew and I started podcasting and sharing our opinions about movies I have found myself wandering through the canals of my movie experiences past, none more so than after watching the magnificent Mad Max: Fury Road. When I told people that I cried a little during Mad Max: Fury Road I was greeted with puzzled and slightly concerned looks. No it isn’t a weepy, but for me as a film fan, the tears were those of pure joy, there I was not only seeing a balls to the wall action film with breathtaking practical effects rather than the usual brain freeze CGI fests, I was also seeing a great female action character (of the non-sexualised variety) at the cinema for the first time. Most of the great female characters in action that are often cited, the Ripley’s, the Sarah Connor’s, I didn’t get the pleasure of seeing on the big screen, Mad Max: Fury Road gave me that unexpected pleasure.

After the release of Mad Max: Fury Road, every man, woman and dog wanted to talk about ‘strong female characters’, which don’t get me wrong, is a great thing, but my point of contention is with the word strong. Strength comes in many shapes and forms, it is often born from weakness, regret and tragedy. It is, for me, about honesty, integrity and diversity of roles for female actors/characters.

Many of my favourite female characters in films are found in what would be considered small films or independent films. These women aren’t seeking redemption and they aren’t burdened with saving the world, they are just living in it and that’s hard enough. So in honour of my love for Mad Max: Fury Road, I decided to do the opposite of what I had intended to do (write a piece of women who kick ass in film) and instead share some of my favourite smaller films you may not have heard of or seen in a while that are well worth watching for their portrayal of female characters.  I’ve also tried not to include films I’ve already discussed on the podcast.

 Blue Car (2002)

Blue Car

Director: Karen Moncrieff

Writer: Karen Moncrieff

Starring: David Strathairn, Agnes Bruckner & Margaret Colin

Blue Car is a difficult film to watch, telling the story of a gifted teenage girl who uses her writing talents to help cope with tragedy and loss at home. The film methodically explores the relationship that develops between Meg (Agnes Bruckner) and her teacher, Auster (David Strathairn).  What Karen Moncrieff does incredibly well is flesh out her characters in a believable way, as Auster supports Meg’s creativity and then perhaps too eagerly, comforts her after another tragic event at home, a ball of knots develops in your stomach, the audience knows where the film is going earlier than Meg, she is being groomed, and at the point that she too realises what is happening, it is heartbreaking.  The performances and direction elevate Blue Car from the material’s potential to have a ‘lifetime’ quality, in that it doesn’t exploit and refuses to cast any one character as a villain, instead exploring notions of desire, motivation and power, similar to Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman.

 Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Rachel Getting Married

Director: Jonathan Demme

Writer: Jenny Lumet

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt & Debra Winger

Anyone who doubts the acting talent of Anne Hathaway, I present this movie for your consideration. Hathaway plays Kym, a young woman returning home from drug rehabilitation to attend the wedding of her sister, Rachel (played by the divine Rosemary DeWitt).  Movies that revolve around weddings are hit and miss but in Demme’s film the wedding celebration provides the perfect backdrop for Kym’s return and in the way the film is shot and the live score, we the audience feel as though we are a guest as Kym crashes through.  Hathaway brings a brittle energy to Kym and never tries to make her more ‘likable’ or vie for our sympathy; she is a work in progress.  The confrontation between Kym and her mother, played by Debra Winger, is one of the more honest film portrayals of anger, grief and regret in recent memory.

 Love Serenade (1998)

Love Serenade

Director: Shirley Barrett

Writer: Shirley Barrett

Starring: Miranda Otto, Rebecca Frith, George Shevtsov

 

Love Sereande was awarded the Caméra d’Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, a feat not achieved by another Australian film until 2009’s Samson and Delilah. If I could recommend one film which I believe epitomises the humour and eccentricity of great Australia cinema, it would be this one.  Love Serenade is about two sisters, Vicki-Anne (Rebecca Firth) and Dimity (Miranda Otto) whose life turns upside down when a popular radio DJ Ken Sherry takes up residence in their remote town.  This is a film I watch every few years and it always manages to put a smile on my face. Vicki-Anne and Dimity are mostly played for laughs but they never feel like caricatures, they are the awkwardness and desperation in us all at one time or another. Some may find the films third act/ending off putting but I think the fantastical elements add to the films overall charm. All I’ll say is Beef with Black Bean Sauce. 

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

Welcome the Dollhouse

Director: Todd Solondz

Writer: Todd Solondz

Stars: Heather MatarazzoChristina Brucato, Brendan Sexton III

Welcome to the Dollhouse by Todd Solondz was probably the first indie film I truly loved. The brilliant Heather Matarazzo plays Dawn Wiener, she is all glasses, awkward clothes and conversation. The kids at school make her life a living hell; her parents seem to love her nerdy older brother and younger, beautiful ballerina sister more than their middle child.  I first watched Welcome to the Dollhouse at a sleep over at my best friend’s house. We were both 13 and felt like outsiders at home and school, that night we witnessed a recreation of the type of horror and strong willed-dark humour that propelled our teenage lives along. After that first viewing, Welcome became a sleepover staple – we quoted it, imitated Dawn and had a crush on Brendan Sexton III.  What makes Welcome to the Dollhouse different from the myriad of films about unpopular young people is that Dawn is not perfect, we don’t just feel ‘sympathy’ for her, she isn’t a victim, she knows what is going on and she can be stubborn, resourceful and even cruel. Dawn is a real representation of so many of us who marched in the fringes growing up, providing a viewing experience that is both painful and cathartic.

Enough Said (2013)

Enough Said

Director: Nicole Holofcener

Writer: Nicole Holofcener

Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, & Catherine Keener

Enough Said was a film I went into knowing nothing about, one of those spontaneous Sundays spent alone at the local cinema. The story is familiar territory for any romantic comedy, man and woman meet, navigate relationship, lies and hijinks ensue- will their relationship survive? About 40 minutes into Enough Said I had a revelation, I am invested in what happens to these central characters, I want them to be happy, and I care. By the time the credits rolled and I spotted director/writer Nicole Holofcener’s name it all made sense, she is one of my favourite film makers working today. I scolded myself for not being aware that she had a new film out, while wiping away a well-earned tear.

Eva, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus is getting ready to say goodbye to her only daughter who is leaving for college. At a party she meets Albert (James Gandolfini) a divorced dad sharing custody of his daughter, also leaving for college. The two have an awkward yet sweet romance; until Eva begins working for Albert’s ex-wife played Catherine Kenner and coerces information about Albert from her that begins to taint their growing relationship. The revelation here is James Gandolfini, a fine actor but with a tendency to be typecast, here he is tender and funny, making his death in the same year this film was released, all the more heartbreaking. This was one of those films that I made sure to buy as soon as it was available, because like many on this list, if I need to feel something whether it be pleasure, romance, humour or sadness, I know what to put into the DVD player.

For another perspective on Enough Said, head over to No, Totally and give their episode dedicated to the film a listen.

Real Women Have Curves (2002)

Real Women Have Curves

Director: Patricia Cardoso

Writer: Josephina Lopez

Starring: America Ferrera, Lupe Ontiveros, Ingrid Oliu

The title of this film isn’t great, but it works in the context of the lives and the culture we encounter through the film. Real Women Have Curves was the debut of America Ferrara and it made me a fan of hers. I still wait for her charisma, beauty and talent to be fully realised in the film industry, but I fear this may never happen. (Thank God for TV).  The film is a wonderful character piece focusing on Ana (Ferrara) as she graduates high school and is deciding what to do with her life. She is a large girl and her mother Carmen who is also overweight, coerces her to work at a dress factory to help support the family. Carmen hates her body and it is a focal point for her unhappiness and feelings of shame. Ana, however does not tie her self-worth to her weight, she has dreams, intelligence, determination and a loving boyfriend who sees all of her.  The film doesn’t go for histrionics or a preachy tone; it is a humourous and real story in the vain of the best coming of age stories. 

Lovely and Amazing (2001)

Lovely and Amazing

Director: Nicole Holofcener

Writer: Nicole Holofcener

Starring: Brenda Blethyn, Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimor, Raven Goodwin & Jake Gyllenhaal.

Lovely & Amazing is a story that focuses on a family of women, the matriarch of sorts – Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) and her two adult daughters, Elizabeth (Emily Mortimor), a struggling actress, Michelle (Catherine Keener), a mother and artist. Then there is Annie a young African American girl adopted by Jane. Annie is played by Raven Goodwin who deliverers one of the best child performances of all time in my humble opinion. Lovely & Amazing, examining the neurosis, identity and self-esteem issues that plague the Marks women and the different ways they cope with that burden. The writing is brutally honest, at times awkward and darkly funny.

Two scenes in particular stay with me – Elizabeth stands naked in front of a one night stand she met at an audition, relatively well known-actor and asks him to point out all the things ‘wrong’ with her body. This isn’t a game or a chance for her to start a fight; she REALLY wants to know, as if any confirmation provided would give her some kind of long sought after relief. The second scene is when the brash Michelle tries to sell her hand made miniature chairs at a fancy shop and is rejected, only to bump into an old high school acquaintance who is now a successful doctor. Michelle goes on to talk about her child birth experience and how she ‘said no to drugs’, a story she will repeat at numerous points in the film as she feels she has little else to tell of interest. Some may consider Lovely & Amazing a movie for women, but it is so much more, it is about the human condition and our tendency to self-sabotage and be blind to the lovely and amazing things in our lives. Side note – one of the best scenes ever filled in a ‘McDonalds’, I never fail to cry during that scene, it says so much with so little.

Gas, Food, Lodging (1992)

Gas Food Lodging

Director: Alison Anders

Writer: Alison Anders (based on the novel by Richard Peck)

Starring: Brooke Adams, Ione Skye, Fairuza Balk

I remember the first time I watched Gas Food Lodging, it was one of those movies they play at 2 am between infomercials and morning shows. I couldn’t sleep, it was just background noise to my insomnia but over the next hour and forty minutes I found myself entranced by the intimate look I was being granted into the lives of three women, Nora ( Brooke Adams) a single mum raising her two teenage daughters, Shade (Fairuza Balk) and the older, rebellious Trudy (Ione Sky). The three women live together in a cramped trailer park, Nora is a low paid waitress, Trudy after skipping school, follows in her mum’s footsteps, while the introverted Shade spends most of her time watching movie starring her favourite Mexican actor and attempting to set up her mother.

The women in Gas Food Lodging are authentic, damaged and fascinating. It is my comfort movie, whenever I am feeling low I watch it, not because it is particularly happy, it is in fact heartbreaking, but in the heartbreak there is hope, particularly after the final ‘reveal’, it devastates me. An amazing soundtrack by J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr is the cherry on top of an amazing piece of pie.

Margot at the Wedding (2007)

Margot at the Wedding

Director: Noah Baumbach

Writer: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Jack Black

Naoh Baumbach writes wonderful characters but is particularly skilled at writing for women, whether they are leads – think Frances Ha or the upcoming Mistress America, or fully fleshed supporting characters such as those in The Squid and the Whale and The Life Aquatic. Critically and commercially, Margot at the Wedding is considered a lesser piece in the Baumbach catalogue but I have to admit, it is one of my favourites. Margot, played by a deliciously icy Nicole Kidman decides to take her son to visit her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) after she discovers Pauline has agreed to marry free spirited Malcolm (one of the first dramatic performances from Jack Black, if you doubt that sentence drop everything now and watch Bernie). The film is full of dramatic and darkly comedic tension as Margot – a very difficult woman, makes no secret of her disapproval of Malcolm, Pauline who is a ball of uncertainties, soon is engulfed in the negativity and neurosis Margot has brought with her. Their weekend together in Long Island is full of family secrets, betrayals and at times scenes that hit uncomfortably close to home, both from a family perspective and the crippling effects of narcissism and self-hatred on the self and our relationships.

Me Without You (2001)

Me Without You

Director: Sandra Goldbacher

Writer: Sandra Goldbacher

Starring: Anna Friel & Michelle Williams

Sometimes a film comes to you at just the right time in your life, that was the case with Sandra Goldacher’s Me Without You. The film explores an intense female friendship from childhood to adulthood between Marina (Ana Friel) and Holly (Michelle Williams). What begins as an intense bond slowly turns into a toxic relationship, held together by mere memories of the past and the old adage; we only hurt the ones we love. When I first watched Me Without You I has just ‘lost’ a close friend of mine. I say lost because that’s what it felt like, an aching loss of a part of me, but through the passage of time, it is easy to see that long before the break of bonds, we were destined to take diverging paths in our lives, with no room for carry on’s. I won’t lie and say this film is a masterpiece, much like some of my other suggestions (Blue Car and Real Women Have Curves), the film relies heavily on clichés and there are moments of clunky plot and dialogue, but at its heart, the vulnerable performances of Friel and Williams make this a must see, particularly for those who have experiences the grief of an evolved or ended friendship.

Bernadette grew up renting videos from a Plains Video. She mostly hired out Cry Baby and wore the tape thin learning the lines to the John Waters classic. After a series of arguments in the car ride home with her husband, Andrew, the two decided to record their arguments and launch them into the world for everyone to listen to.