Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
Stories We Tell
There are films that thrive with explanation – a teaser to get the anticipation pumping – and there are those that thrive in secrecy. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is the latter, a stunning documentary of personal discovery much in the vein of Dear Zachary – a film whose twists and turns grip you because its highly personal nature follows the unexpected moments in life – experiences best savored blindly.
Without revealing too much – the details can be easily Googled for the ultra-curious, as the documentary’s details spread like wildfire once the film premiered in Venice – Stories We Tell is an intimate manifestation of the telephone game. Eager to investigate a particular story about her mother (the late Diane Polley), the filmmaker sits down every family member and interested party to record their version of the events, which she then intermingles with home movies and Super 8 reconstructions. Beautifully narrated by her father (actor Michael Polley) from his own memoir, Polley splices similar and contradictory details together to unravel the story – and the film’s focus – piece by slight piece.
The result is a film richer than most – one in which every piece is rich with meaning and discovery. Polley's first documentary captures all the nuts and bolts necessary for an entertaining tale, while also packing in a philosophical complexity that makes the film perfect for multiple viewings and long, coffee-fueled conversations.
Sometimes an exploration of the typical can offer something completely atypical. In Jackie, Dutch filmmaker Antoinette Beumer employs many typical cinematic tropes and female characterizations to create a fresh and genuine look at the female experience. The film stars real-life sisters Carice and Jelka van Houten as twins adopted by a gay couple. When they’re alerted to their birth mother Jackie’s (Holly Hunter) medical issues in the U.S., Sofie (Carice) begrudgingly joins Daan (Jelka) on a trip to meet Jackie and help transport her to a rehab facility.
The journey is as much a quest towards self-discovery as it is a long-delayed mother-daughters learning experience. Removed from their everyday lives, the sisters must face their problematic relationships back home (Sofie’s toxic work environment, Daan’s controlling husband), while also learning life lessons from Jackie, who slowly warms to her daughters. Heartfelt and realistic performances are handled by all, but the magic resides with Hunter, whose outbursts of fierceness and tenderness bring a whole new dynamic to the world of mothers and daughters.
Instead of merely laying out a sappy familial drama, Beumer crafts a film that doesn’t fall into the clichés it seems to represent. Instead, Jackie thoughtfully tackles the boundaries and emotional potential of family in all its many forms.
Laurent Cantet's latest isn't the first time Joyce Carol Oates' novel hit the big screen. In the mid-'90s, before Angelina Jolie hit the mainstream, she led a group girls in the first film incarnation of Foxfire, a flawed feature that modernized and obliterated much of the original story, but left the powerful message of female companionship intact. Sixteen years later, Cantet revives the original piece, but sadly does so without the emotional impact.
Like the original novel, Foxfire follow a group of teen girls in the 1950s who become a girl gang with the help of Margaret "Legs" Sadovsky (Raven Adamson) and Maddy (Katie Coseni). Legs hates the sexist, women-marginalized culture she's trapped in and dreams of a supportive sisterhood of girls. But anger is mixed in with supportive dreams and the girls of Foxfire quickly evolve from young women protecting their sisters from assault and injustice, into extorters and felons.
These are naive, idealistic girls who lack the maturity to truly bring their dreams to life. It's a difficult world to express, and though Cantet easily re-creates the proper environment for Foxfire, the fervent, encapsulating emotion is missing. The newcomers who make up the film's large cast aren't experienced enough to make it real, the film feeling like girls at play rather than girls with rage. As such, it's an unfortunate misstep that will likely alienate potential younger viewers it should be inspiring.
Ginger & Rosa
Any emotional resonance about youthful rebellion not found in Foxfire can definitely be found in Sally Potter's latest, Ginger & Rosa. From the first to last moment, the British director offers a beautifully complex look into the intricacies of female friendship in 1960s London. Both girls, played by Elle Fanning and Alice Englert respectively, were born side by side as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and they grew up together, the best of friends.
Potter's examination of this friendship thrives not because it is perfect, but because it speaks so solidly to the adolescent experience. Ginger and Rosa are two girls who grew up together, inseparable, but their friendship begins to fracture as their interests diverge. At first, the pair are utterly willing to support each other and take each other's interests and causes without question. As their personalities develop, however, their paths begin to split. Ginger becomes increasingly panicked by the thought of nuclear war and becomes an activist, while Rosa only wants to find love and meaning, easily manipulated by the passions of older men. Bit by bit they begin to move away from each other, their actions fueled as much by their friendship angst as their own passions.
Shot with this wispy, cloudy paleness contrasting the bright hue of Ginger's hair, Potter's film is a beauty to uphold – one that quickly takes on a fairy tale quality. But this isn't the story of princes and perfection; it's young women and their connection to each other.
Where Potter's film uses coincidental births to great success, Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children falters. Salman Rushdie adapts his famous novel to tell a multi-generational epic about India's independence from Britain, the formation of Pakistan, and the political conflict that plagued them both. A pair of young boys – one rich and one poor – are born at the precise start of India's independence, and switched by a desperate woman eager to please her activist husband. She feels immense guilt but stays silent as each boy struggles with their lives – one eternally positive but struggling, and the other fiercely negative and fighting for more. As they grow, they discover a large group of Midnight's Children, each of which has special powers, who remain hidden in the real world until political uprise threatens to expose them.
Narrated by Rushdie himself (as the adult version of the poor boy in a rich life, Saleem), the film begins with a similar feel to Stories We Tell – a regal narrator unleashing a lyrical story. But narration cannot save the dense, overreaching epic. Where Place Beyond the Pines outlined a story easy to follow through multiple generations, Meeta's latest is a confusing mishmash more interested in hitting novellic details than unravelling a cinematic journey. There is simply too much to say and too much political ground to cover that Meeta cannot keep the whimsical, softened story of violence afloat. Rather than a slowly expanding epic, Midnight's Children is a film of moments – so brief and often without context that it's never emotional, just perfunctory.
As Neil Jordan's latest unfolds, one can't help but think of Mary Harron's 2011 TIFF offering The Moth Diaries. In many ways, Byzantium embodies what was expected of Moth. This is a vampire movie that eschews the current trends to return to a former darkness, one that does so while focusing on the power of women who do not answer to the world of men. Unfortunately, it's a premise mostly wasted.
This is a film that focuses on minutiae and neglects the dynamic. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton) are vampires on the run. Only the latter has no idea, idly walking the streets, desperate to share her story and make a connection, while Clara fends off assassins and sells her body to make ends meet. After one dangerous encounter, they end up in the town they started in – an area in which both face their biggest obsessions – Clara coming face to face with the men hunting them, and Eleanor befriending a human, her secret slipping out and bringing the danger to their front door. Jordan punctuates the modern story with the women's origin story – a dirty, smarmy tale of the noble countryman who adores Clara (Sam Riley), and the pervy cohort who delights in destroying her (Jonny Lee Miller).
While refreshing for its dedication to an older and more subtle manifestation of vampiric romance, and the many nods to works like Bram Stoker and Anne Rice, Byzantium falters in its focus. Though the power is in Clara's story and her fierce commitment to Eleanor, the pair are living separate lives, the film trying to project the stories of the past, each of their presents, and the lives of those they impact. It isn't until the twists are revealed that the story becomes electric and reveals the film's true potential, and a much more dynamic framework to boot.