Why are studio movies beating independent ones in featuring interesting, complicated female characters?
Hunting Lane Films
At a kitchen table in a rustbelt Pennsylvania town, Cindy, played by a cherubic Michelle Williams, asks her grandmother what it was like when she fell in love. She considers the question, considers her late husband, and says, "He had no regard for me as a person."
The elderly woman's words, from the Oscar-nominated Blue Valentine, could serve as a statement about independent film as a whole: indie movies of the last decade have shown little regard for their young female protagonists as people. Blue Valentine's Cindy is meek and mild, with a discontent that brews steadily under the surface of her alabaster complexion. She's cute. She's a blank slate. As a character, she is utterly forgettable.
A number of indie movies from the past ten years have portrayed female love interests with remarkable similarity, blending them all into one smudgy portrait. Since "indie" is synonymous with counterculture, or at least alternative culture, viewers expect characters that aren't canned. An indie romantic comedy presumes that the male and female leads will be equally realized and written. Instead, indie movies of the early 21st century contained an insidious sexism. If she was in her late teens or early twenties, she remained amorphous. All you saw was all you got.
In Lost in Translation, Charlotte, a Yale grad with a philosophy degree, accompanies her photographer husband on a business trip to Japan. "I wasn't doing anything so I came along," as she puts it. Jetlagged, adrift in a sea of neon, she gazes out the window at Tokyo below and roils pouty in a California king -sized bed. She plays with her scarf, she smokes, she listens to monks chanting and says she doesn't "feel anything." But then she meets middle -aged movie star Bob Harris, played by Bill Murray, who enlists her in "trying to organize a prison break" from their five star hotel. Johannsen's character and performance pale against Murray's, making her even more boring. It's hard to see Charlotte as little more than indulged, bored, and pretty. It would be easy to say that this kind of celluloid portrayal of the young lovely is just a reflection of the male gaze. But it's not: Sofia Coppola, first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, wrote Lost in Translation.
Pretty, flat Charlottes are the face of twentysomething female characters in early 21st century independent films. In Wes Anderson's cult classic The Royal Tenenbaums, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Margot Tenenbaum, the middle child, a brooding playwright who peaked in her early teens. She never develops past a sullen girl with her arms crossed against her chest and too much eyeliner. Noah Baumbach's 2010 film Greenberg depicted the least sympathetic lead character in recent cinematic memory- Ben Stiller as 42-year -old neurotic, self -centered life dropout Roger Greenberg. Greta Gerwig plays 25- year old Florence, his brother's personal assistant. Even though Greenberg is loathsome, he is a memorable character with a back story. Florence is pretty, sweet, forgiving, and as formless as the L.A. smog.
The list goes on. Andrew Jarecki's semi-true All Good Things shows Kirsten Dunst as Katie Marks, snuggling into wooly sweaters and glistening in a golden New England October light. Steve Martin is smitten with Claire Danes in Shopgirl, and rescues her from a life of selling gloves at a department store. A young Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl works the cosmetics counter at a box store and stares longingly out the window into the parking lot while characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal and John C. Riley vie for her affection.
Occasionally a young leading lady of the indies jumped off the screen, but she wasn't exactly complicated. Natalie Portman in Garden State rescued Zach Braff from his torpor with funny faces and silly sounds. Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer skipped through IKEA and showed Joseph Gordon-Levitt the fun side of life. She is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an archetype identified by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007 after reviewing Elizabethtown and recognizing a redundancy of the young female love interest who parachutes in " to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." She has no interior life, and she's disposed of once she's taught her lesson. Memorable Manic Pixie Dream Girls who chased their guys' blues away include Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, Rachel Bilson in The Last Kiss, and Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. While the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reduces leading ladies into a type who functions as a utility, she is at least a memorable character. You can see a movie and remember what she does, even if it's cloying and grating. And it's at least recognizable as a construction, which is more than you can say for the Charlottes of the independent film world. At least the Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn't boring.