A Look at the Dynamic Women Behind Sundance’s History-Making Year

A Look at the Dynamic Women Behind Sundance’s History-Making Year

Jan 17, 2013

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.

May in the Summer still, Cherien Dabis

In 2012, Ava DuVernay became the first black woman to win Sundance’s directing award. In November, Sundance upped the ante, offering us much more than just a list of independent films that would hit Park City, Utah this weekend. In a festival community where many fests fail to include any women in competition, Sundance released a history-making roster of in-competition films featuring an equal number of male and female filmmakers.

This is one of the most promising twists to hit the film industry in recent years. Sure, it isn’t Hollywood; women haven’t yet risen through the ranks to earn the big blockbuster projects. But Sundance is where many of today’s leading male filmmakers got their shot. Talents like Christopher Nolan, David Gordon Green and David O. Russell all found their footing in Sundance before becoming some of Hollywood’s leading directors. Each leveraged indie success and creativity for mainstream work.

This year’s crop of female filmmakers has the benefit of not being an anomaly among men, an equal platform for their idiosyncratic lives and interests to shine. One is the stepdaughter of Ringo Starr. Another held her own against the sleazy charm of James Spader. Another does everything from television production to novel writing and still finds time to cofound artist groups. Many of them have lives just as interesting, if not moreso, than the characters they’ve created. It’s pretty thrilling to sift through the digital imprints these women have already left – lives so creative and diverse that you can’t help but feel a little excited chill for the future if this is what we have today.

Learn more about the eight women In Competition below. As an added bonus, we’ll be updating this page over the next week with the critical impact each film has during the festival.

Jill Soloway, Writer/Director of Afternoon Delight

Jill SolowayIn this sexy, dark comedy, a lost L.A. housewife puts her idyllic hipster life in jeopardy when she tries to rescue a stripper by taking her in as a live-in nanny. [Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch.]

Jill Soloway boasts the sort of life list to make anyone jealous, a comedic charisma that has made more than one writer wish she was their BFF. She’s written and/or produced shows like Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara while also trying to bring I’m with the Band  and Jewess Jones to the small screen. She’s cofounder of East Side Jews and once had a self-described “girl gang” called OBJECT. She wrote the “sisterly, smart, funny and vulgarTiny Ladies in Shiny Pants, and along with sister Faith, she’s whipped up plays like The Real Live Brady Bunch and The Miss Vagina Project. She’s old friends with Jane Lynch, “the third Soloway Sister,” who hung out with the pair in Chicago before hitting it big. The trio still collaborates, and Ms. Lynch shows up in Soloway’s feature directorial debut.  Here she describes heading to Hollywood and learning about “Men’s Stories.”

Her Sundance video is currently unavailable.

Twitter: @jillwaysolo

Reception:  "Among the best of a crop of movies dealing with a grown-up identity crisis at Sundance this year, notable for treating the woman at the center of its story with sophistication and honesty." [TheWrap], "There's not much delightful about Afternoon Delight, an off-putting comedy about a too-idle Los Angeles woman that all of a sudden in the last few minutes decides it wants to be a serious movie." [THR], "Although there are moments when it feels the plot might move in unexpected directions, in the end, the expected cliches reign." [Variety], "Kathryn Hahn's impressive dramatic performance pulls the picture through most of the rough patches." [HitFix]

Jerusha Hess, Cowriter/Director of Austenland

Jerusha HessThirtysomething, single Jane is obsessed with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. On a trip to an English resort, her fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman become more real than she ever imagined. [Cast: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge, Georgia King, James Callis.]

One day Napoleon Dynamite and Stephenie Meyer walked into a bar… Okay, not exactly, but Jerusha Hess’ collaborators are that unusually matched. The first-time solo female filmmaker made a name for herself as part of the husband-wife duo that brought us Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos. The pair met while at Bringham Young, and after multiple films together, have started developing their own singular projects. In her words: “We’ve made three movies for the boys, and it was nice to make a movie for the girls.” For Hess, this means a new 30-something twist on Jane Austen, produced by none other than fellow Mormon and sparkle matron Meyer, who is also branching out. She’s produced and financed the film – the first not derived from her own writing.

What might be the best thing about Hess’ first solo feature? Jennifer Coolidge is said to play: a middle-aged 21st century woman pretending to be a 22-year-old Regency ingenue looking for romance from suitors who are actually paid actors.”

Her Sundance video is currently unavailable.

Twitter: @AustenlandMovie

Reception:  "Overexposed material is fresh and fun." [THR], "Turns out Jerusha Hess is the really funny one in the family." [Salt Lake Tribune], "Austenland should quickly evoke a bidding war that will make the numerous studios regret passing on the first time around." [HitFix], "A little shrill at times but fun, warm and, for once, making great play of an almost entirely female-focused cast." [Guardian], "Hess’ directorial style isn’t nearly as fussy as her husband’s (despite an opening scene that fits very much into that universe) though it's just as playful." [Playlist]

Stacie Passon, Writer/Director of Concussion

Stacie PassonAfter a blow to the head, Abby decides she can't do it anymore. Her life just can't be only about the house, the kids and the wife. She needs more: she needs to be Eleanor. [Cast: Robin Weigert, Maggie Siff, Johnathan Tchaikovsky, Julie Fain Lawrence, Emily Kinney, Laila Robins.]

After a career as a commercial producer and director, Stacie Passon has broken into cinema with her first feature. Concussion, which Passon wrote in only six weeks, has already found much success, being accepted into IFP’s narrative, and earning both a spotlight on female filmmakers grant and the Adrienne Shelly Director’s Grant. Rose Troche (The Safety of Objects, The L Word) is her mentor, and last year Passon used her work as a jumping point to talk to Paul Mazursky about his treatment of fidelity and women in the ‘70s for Filmmaker Magazine.

A link to her Meet the Artists video introduction for Sundance.

Twitter: @StaciePasson

Reception:  "Stacie Passon's sexually charged premise becomes a vehicle for an emotional exploration of a stagnant relationship and the struggle between desire and stability...Weigert gives a performance that's revelatory." [Salt Lake Tribune], "Passon demonstrates an extraordinary flair for portraying romance and sexuality on screen." [ShockYa], "A sharp-edged drama." [ScreenDaily]

Francesca Gregorini, Writer/Director of Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes

Francesca GregoriniEmanuel, a troubled girl, becomes preoccupied with her mysterious, new neighbor, who bears a striking resemblance to her dead mother. In offering to babysit her newborn, Emanuel unwittingly enters a fragile, fictional world, of which she becomes the gatekeeper. Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel, Alfred Molina, Frances O'Connor, Jimmi Simpson, Aneurin Barnard.

Gregorini, or Countess Francesca McKnight Dontatella Romana Gregorini di Savignano di Romagna, has the sort of life where you’d expect her in front of the camera rather than behind it. She’s the daughter of a Bond girl, the stepdaughter of Ringo Starr, and dated Portia de Rossi in the actress’ pre-Ellen days. For years she worked as a singer songwriter until her Beatles stepdad encouraged her to move from music to movies: “When I was doing both music and short films, he always encouraged my filmmaking more. I think he just genuinely thought that was where I was more gifted.” She kicked things off with Tanner Hall, before hitting Sundance with Emanuel, which is a personal story inspired by her own less public experiences, which you can learn about in the link below.

A link to her Meet the Artists video introduction for Sundance.

Twitter: @EMANUELmovie

Reception:  "It’s tragic when you see a director over-extending..." but "it’s refreshing just to see a movie in which women talk to other women." [Salt Lake Tribune], "A sophomore feature that demonstrates more talent than restraint." [THR], "Offbeat, but also frequently off-key and somewhat off-putting." [Variety]

Lake Bell, Writer/Director of In a World…

Lake BellAn underachieving vocal coach is motivated by her father, the king of movie-trailer voice-overs, to pursue her aspirations of becoming a voiceover star. Amidst pride, sexism and family dysfunction, she sets out to change the voice of a generation. Cast: Lake Bell, Demetri Martin, Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Ken Marino, Fred Melamed.

Lake Bell is the sort of woman you can’t pin down. She’s a beautiful actress whose looks got her “into a door,” the kind often in front of the camera, appearing on myriad Hot lists and telling jokes in her underwear for Esquire. She often plays the sidekick, the friend, and the lover, alongside everyone from James Spader to Alicia Silverstone. But this is also the woman who worked on the London stage before hitting the big screen, whose “secret addiction” to cars led THR to make her its “automotive contributing editor.”  Three years ago she added writer/director to her resume with the Sundance-premiering short Worst Enemy as a practice run for feature filmmaking, and now returns with her first feature, helping up the once-anemic world of Hollywood comediennes.

A link to her Meet the Artists video introduction for Sundance.

Twitter: @lakebell

Reception:  "A confident and very funny debut." [AV Club], "That Lake Bell could seemingly come out of nowhere and write, direct and star in such a wonderful movie as In A World is incredible." [/Film], "Clever and sweet and while it may not linger permanently in my mind, it has me genuinely intrigued by Bell's potential as a multi-hyphenate." [HitFix], "Written and directed by Bell with skill and grace, In a World shames  both big-money, big-studio limp, lame Hollywood rom-coms and the toothless, gum-the-hand-that-fe?eds-them lukewarm 'satires' about Hollywood Hollywood makes." [MSN]

Liz W. Garcia, Writer/Director of The Lifeguard

Liz W GarciaA former valedictorian quits her reporter job in New York and returns to the place she last felt happy: her childhood home in Connecticut. She gets work as a lifeguard and starts a dangerous relationship with a troubled teenager. Cast: Kristen Bell, Mamie Gummer, Martin Starr, Alex Shaffer, Amy Madigan, David Lambert.

For most, Liz W. Garcia is the writer who started out on Dawson’s Creek, before heading to the likes of Cold Case and creating the Jason Lee-starring cop show Memphis Beat. All of that, however, came years after her production assistant gig on the must-see classic Return of the Killer Tomatoes! In all seriousness, however, in the last year she has directed a feature that gives Kristen Bell something that reads infinitely more interesting than most of her recent projects, and in her spare times writes about women and showbiz for Forbes. (When you wrap up here, please go read her piece on women gaining influence in Hollywood. It’s a good read.)

A link to her Meet the Artists video introduction for Sundance.

Twitter: @lizwgarcia

Reception:  "Finally, a movie that REALLY showcases Kristen Bell's acting chops." [Salt Lake Magazine], "As director, Garcia shows more decisiveness -- cinematography, coverage and editorial are all competently accomplished, but cast direction often wavers, unable to rise above the limitations of the script." [THR]

Cherien Dabis, Writer/Director May in the Summer

Cherien DabisA bride-to-be is forced to reevaluate her life when she reunites with her family in Jordan and finds herself confronted with the aftermath of her parents’ divorce. Cast: Cherien Dabis, Hiam Abbass, Bill Pullman, Alia Shawkat, Nadine Malouf, Alexander Siddig.

Influenced by her experiences as a first-generation immigrant growing up during the Gulf War, Palestinian American director Cherien Dabis brings one of the most acclaimed directorial resumes to Sundance’s female slate.  After a number of years writing for The L Word, Dabis wrote and directed Amreeka, an indie that won her a slew of buzz and praise, including a FIPRESCI Prize and Independent Spirit nominations. The film earned her a spot on Variety’s “10 Director’s to Watch,” and hers was one of five films selected for Sundance Institute’s initiative on Advancing Cultural Dialogue. Amongst the heaps of praise heaped upon her by once-professor June Stein: “she was incredibly diligent, dogged, and determined to learn the screenwriting form. ... She just didn’t give up on her ideas until she got them right. Her great determination and focus were a huge factor in how she got her first feature made. Because she’s tenacious.” And unlike most who jump from acting to directing, Dabis’ latest – which will open the festival – is also her acting debut.

A link to her Meet the Artists video introduction for Sundance.

Twitter: @CherienDabis

Reception:  "A familiar family melodrama." [Hitfix], "Much to enjoy...and plenty that's cliched." [THR], "Each time Dabis nails it, though, something comes along to take the wind from the sails." [ScreenCrush], "It perfectly encapsulated both Sundance's virtues and its faults." [AV Club]

Lynn Shelton, Writer/Director of Touchy Feely

Lynn SheltonA massage therapist is unable to do her job when stricken with a mysterious and sudden aversion to bodily contact. Meanwhile, her uptight brother's foundering dental practice receives new life when clients seek out his “healing touch.” Cast: Rosemarie DeWitt, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, Josh Pais.

Lynn Shelton is no stranger to this column. A filmmaker inspired by Claire Denis’ story about experiencing her directorial debut at the age of 40, Shelton found her calling in cinema. She’s the woman who crafted the dark comedy My Effortless Brilliance, already made waves at Sundance in 2009 for her award-winning, sexuality-bending film Humpday, and is the mind behind the beautiful, thoughtful, and honestly funny Your Sister’s Sister. Her new film is not only another collaboration with the criminally underused Rosemarie DeWitt, but also a more serious, “laid open” piece than her fans have come to expect.

A link to her Meet the Artists video introduction for Sundance.

Twitter: none

Reception:  "The film should be warmly, if not rapturously, received by her fans." [THR], "This time, Shelton forces this top-notch cast tthrough situations that sound better on paper than are realized on screen." [Salt Lake Tribune], "There's a great movie somewhere inside "Touchy Feely" desperately trying to swim to the surface, but its obscurity also comes with an inarticulateness that robs it of its potential." [Playlist]


Categories: Features, Film Festivals
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