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.
It's not that there aren't strong originally written female characters in current cinema, roles where the protagonist is clear-eyed, sharp -tongued, and the moral center of the film. But the catch is that they are roles written for girls, not women. The Ozarkan gothic Winter's Bone, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, was at the top of critics' best picture lists, and just earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress. Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree, a determined 17 -year -old who is responsible for saving the family's home from seizure by "the Law" when her father disappears, evading a drug charge. New York magazine film critic David Edelstein said, "As a modern heroine, Ree Dolly has no peer." A heroine, and yet not a woman.
In the Coen Brothers' adaptation of True Grit, 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, whose only prior role was in a K -Mart commercial, plays a bloodthirsty girl out to avenge her father's death. Her voice is clear and controlled, and handles the Biblical language of the script with adult maturity. Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air said, "It's one of the great female roles, because she's so strong and independent and willful and yet naive and vulnerable at the same time. It's a role great actresses would have fought for but they're far too old to play it."
Juno, from Diablo Cody's eponymous 2007 movie, is one of the most memorable, funny characters of the decade. Ellen Page plays a pregnant teenager sardonically and with joyful wit. She has friends and a family, and she shows mature decision making in terms of her future plans and dreams. She verbally eviscerates any detractors, from her father to an ultrasound technician to her teachers. She's bold and unapologetic. Cody said, "I really wanted to create a character that was reflective of a lot of teenagers I've known who are articulate and aren't just completely wrapped up in typical teenage pursuits." As the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris said, "Juno serves cool, intelligent girls something they rarely see in a movie: themselves."
The film was a triumph for women in cinema, but the heroine is 16. She's still a child. And yet despite the fact that's she's had sexual experiences, she's made almost asexual, like Ree and Steinfeld. Her rotund stomach puts her off-limits to boys at her school, and her brief flirtation with the much-older adoptive father played by Jason Bateman is more awkward than salacious. Like Ree and Steinfeld, Juno is wise beyond her years, yet with no sexuality. She's allowed to be so smart only because she's still a child.
Cody, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2008 said, "I saw writing this screenplay as an opportunity to create an iconic female." She did. But a space for an iconic adult female, especially in independent films, remains.
This dearth of smart, funny female love interests awakens nostalgia for the '90s. Winona Ryder's Lelaina Pierce in Reality Bites embodied the grunge zeitgeist, wearing a shag haircut and men's work shirts, while supporting friends through HIV tests and coming out to their families and slogging through her own disillusionment with a pack of Marlboros and a Big Gulp. Ben Stiller (the corporate guy, very un-Greenberg) woos her with an expense account dinners and Ethan Hawke with slacker charm, but you can see why they fell for her beyond her sex appeal. The same goes for Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise and Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting. These characters are full: with both beauty and brains, she is awake. We didn't see a Lelaina in an indie for the decade.
Big studio films take all the guff for sexist portrayals of women, but commercial romantic comedies in the aughts celebrated feisty independence. The three top-grossing romantic comedies of the 2000s showed a swagger of female self-confidence absent from indie movies. Sex and the City earned $415 million at the box office. Nia Vardalos' My Big Fat Greek Wedding pulled in $369 million, and showed a woman who didn't fit into Hollywood's mold of beauty, navigating her family's traditional expectations and her own desire for love. Eva Mendes depicted a successful gossip columnist in Hitch. As commercial success of these movies shows, audiences hunger for stories that resonate with their own desires, and presents a fuller woman, with friends, opinions, and a career.
Some independent films from the past year inspire hope for originally scripted female characters, moving beyond the biopic and the precocious child. Amy Adams portrayed a tough-as-nails bartender and girlfriend of Mark Wahlberg in . Twenty-four-year old Lena Dunham wrote, directed, and starred in Tiny Furniture, which depicts the post- college limbo of moving back home and working a disappointing job. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener's Please Give explored class difference and relationships with realistic verve. Annette Bening's and Julianne Moore's characters in The Kids Are All Right worked through the challenges of parenting and marriage. These characters are memorable because they're more than a pretty face. They are like the women you know.
In Blue Valentine, Dean sits on the edge of a moving truck with his older coworker, recounting the moment he first saw Cindy. He mulls the possibility of love at first sight, and freeze- frame moments flash in his memory: Cindy's eyes sheepishly peeking out from behind a half -closed door, white teeth pulling at a full red bottom lip, wavy blond hair falling loosely at her shoulders. "I felt like I knew her," he says. "She just seems different." But she was just more of the same.