'Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding': Finally, a Film Gets New Feminism

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Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, and Elizabeth Olsen star as three generations of women negotiating three generations of outlooks—just as women today are doing.

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IFC

Not long into Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, Elizabeth Olsen's character, Zoe, has an epiphany. Sitting on a porch swing outside her grandmother's house in Woodstock as a pot-laden party bustles around her, talking to a middle-aged black woman who's dressed in African garb, she opines with great authority—as college freshmen are wont to do—on a very abstract concept with the conviction that she is the first person on earth to properly understand it. The fragmentation of society, she says, has made interpersonal harmony impossible. The woman corrects her: Yes, fragmentation has complicated things, but "only in recognizing the beauty of fragmentation..." Zoe cuts in—as college freshmen are also wont to do—finishing the woman's thought, "can we begin to transcend it!"

It's a moment that encapsulates Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, a humane, mostly successful chronicle of three generations of women (played by Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, and Olsen) struggling to understand one another after years of familial fragmentation. Written by Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert and directed by Bruce Beresford, its message about intergenerational empathy, and about learning from the failures and successes of one's foremothers, offers a refreshingly thoughtful take on the challenge of being a young feminist.

Young feminists are accustomed by now to being told that they do not exist. But the reality is that American feminism has fragmented—and that's a good thing.

Fonda plays Grace, a sexagenarian for whom the '70s never ended. Grace lives in Woodstock and hasn't seen or spoken to her daughter Diane in 20 years—since Diane's wedding, when daughter caught mother selling pot to the party guests and called the police. Diane, a conservative lawyer who lives in New York City, is the polar opposite of her mother, and she's never allowed her kids—Zoe the aspiring poet and Jake the aspiring filmmaker—to meet their grandmother. When Diane's husband asks her for a divorce, she flees the house and the city and goes, kids in tow, to her mother's place. They spend a few summer weeks getting to know each other, and slowly they begin to forgive each other for their failures as mothers, daughters, and wives.

Movies about intergenerational struggles are hardly uncommon. Movies about intergenerational feminist struggles, however, are hard to come by. And when mainstream films depict feminism at all, they often resorts to caricature, like with Legally Blonde's Enid Wexler, a lesbian from Berkeley who thinks that the word "semester" privileges male reproductive material so wants the winter term to be called the "ovester." Or they offer heavy-handed revisionist history, as with Maggie Gyllenhaal's anachronistically outspoken women's rights campaigner in Hysteria. In Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, though, the feminism is subtle but crucial to the tensions that run through the movie.

Grace is a Second-Wave feminist who lived through the Summer of Love and who fully embraces the idea that women should shape their lives according to their own desires and no one else's. Diane was born at Woodstock—family lore has it that she entered the world just as Jimi Hendrix was playing "The Star Spangled Banner"—and spent her life defining herself in opposition to her mother's brand of feminism. She is highly educated and financially self-sufficient, but she rejects her mother's hippy-dippy beliefs, believing that they made Grace selfish and disconnected from the realities of the world. Zoe, young and self-assured, spends much of the movie deciding which of her many dearly held principles she's willing to compromise on, and trying to find a pragmatic sweet spot between principles and practicality. Of the three women, Zoe comes the closest to calling herself a feminist, though the word is never once uttered in the whole movie.

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Chloe Angyal is a freelance writer and an editor at Feministing. She is currently working on a book about romantic comedies.

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