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An empowering Sundance sees lots of fierce women, on the march and in movies

Published January 28, 2017 1:05 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Park City • A woman who turns to murder to get what she wants. A mother so demoralized by her existence that she starts behaving like a pit bull. A female millennial who calls out her Tinder dates on their idiocy.

If Hollywood has a woman problem, you wouldn't know it from the Sundance Film Festival, wrapping up Sunday.

Last year's diverse festival lineup hinted at a shift in the stories we would see on-screen. Then came best-picture contenders featuring characters of color: "Moonlight," "Fences," "Hidden Figures" and "Lion."

Does that mean we'll soon be overwhelmed by movies about fierce women? Maybe not immediately. The industry has been slow to change, with a serious dearth of female leads and even fewer female filmmakers, while Natalie Portman, Patricia Arquette and Jennifer Lawrence openly discuss the continued disparity in pay.

But for every "Ghostbusters" debacle, there are glimmers of hope, the most recent being the success of "Hidden Figures," a movie about black female mathematicians that has raked in $85 million so far, not to mention three Oscar nominations. Clearly there's a mainstream market for stories about women.

And at Sundance this year, those movies are everywhere — and they're good, with protagonists who aren't hemmed in by gendered stereotypes. Such films have debuted against the backdrop of women's marches around the world, including one in Park City, where locals rallied alongside celebrities, including Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron and John Legend.

Renowned union organizer Dolores Huerta, 86, took the stage during the rally to remind those in the audience of the incredible power of being a woman — that every person at that rally and beyond came from a female body. Incidentally, motherhood was one of the festival's dominant themes, and the moms on-screen weren't the one-dimensional nurturers or nags we're used to seeing.

The documentary "Motherland," for example, explores life at a public hospital's maternity ward in Manila, where impoverished women crowd together while moaning through contractions, sometimes lying three to a bed. Becoming a mother might be natural for these women, most of whom shun family planning, but that doesn't make it easy.

One baby-faced new mom despairs when her own mother pays her a visit. "Please don't make me cry," she pleads. "I'm already having a difficult time."

The challenges of motherhood are even starker in "Bitch," a movie about a stay-at-home mom (Marianna Palka, also the writer and director) who is so burdened by taking care of her four children and her deadbeat, philandering husband that she has a psychotic break and starts acting like a feral dog.

After warning her selfish other half (Jason Ritter) that she's on the verge of losing it, she retreats to the family's basement and starts barking, snarling and rolling around in her own feces.

On a more realistic note, the musical dramedy "Band Aid" shines a light on a stubbornly taboo topic: the lonely agony and shame of having a miscarriage. Like Palka, the movie's star, Zoe Lister-Jones, wrote and directed, and she gives a moving performance as a woman struggling to bounce back a year after losing her first pregnancy. She and her husband, who fight constantly, find momentary solace by chain-smoking joints, though it's ultimately another kind of creation — writing and performing angry songs together — that helps.

While "Bitch" will have niche appeal, "Band Aid," which co-stars Adam Pally and Fred Armisen, has real mainstream potential. That matters because the crew on the set of the film was all-female. If stories about women are an anomaly, then movies with women working behind the scenes are even rarer, which makes "Band Aid" the most remote of outliers.

A couple of nights before the premiere of that movie, Geena Davis, representing her inclusion-focused Bentonville Film Festival, hosted a panel discussion with "Casual" star Michaela Watkins, former "Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams and "Transparent" creator Jill Soloway.

Soloway wasn't discouraged by the prospect of a Donald Trump era; she believes the new administration will galvanize women to band together and demand more. Maybe that will mean more movies for and about women, not to mention richer depictions.

Soloway was in town to promote "I Love Dick," her Amazon.com series about a married filmmaker (Kathryn Hahn) who becomes infatuated with a combative intellectual (Kevin Bacon). The show flips the male gaze on its head, and viewers get to see overwhelming desire through the eyes of its female lead. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Actresses don't often get to show those kinds of messy, unpretty emotions. Most female characters fit into neat boxes: the perfect girlfriend, the insufferable wife, the idealized savior, the caring mom.

"Can we stop using 'mom' as a character description?" Watkins wondered during the panel.

No Sundance movie makes a greater argument for that than "Roxanne Roxanne." The ostensible subject of the biopic is real-life Roxanne Shanté (played by newcomer Chanté Adams), the Queens native who shot to fame in the 1980s as the first female battle rapper. But the juiciest role is Peggy, the performer's mother, played by an electrifying Nia Long.

Peggy is a complicated woman with an apartment full of daughters who tries to protect her girls by dashing their hopes. When her estranged husband fails to show up one afternoon to take the girls out, she explains that men simply aren't dependable. Her language is tough love.

This is a new kind of role for Long, who's had an impressive career since starring in "Boyz n the Hood" and "Friday" in the early 1990s. As actresses age, the parts tend to get less exciting, but this one is an exception, and Long is reveling in it.

"I'd be doing myself a disservice not to embrace the next phase of my career," she said during an interview the morning after a packed premiere. "If I had to give this chapter of my life a title, it would be: badass bitches in red lipstick."

She's encouraged by the women's marches and the ongoing dialogue, though she still sees inequality. At work, she said, if she makes a point on set, and then a male co-star does the same, people tend to hear only the man. (The Netflix reboot of "One Day at a Time" also brilliantly explores this double standard.)

"I feel like now that I'm at a certain age where I have better discernment than I ever did at 25, it's more annoying," she said. "I have to literally count to 10, because being emotional when faced with sexism is a sign of weakness, right?"

The movies at Sundance also explore activism, self-respect and revolt. The documentary "Dolores" revisits Huerta's work co-founding the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez despite countless detractors and blatant sexism. (And after all that, Chavez got all the glory.)

"The Incredible Jessica James," meanwhile, stars Williams as an outspoken 25-year-old playwright who doesn't suffer fools. It's a romantic comedy, but she's no typical flaky, clumsy rom-com heroine.

At one point, her love interest, played by Chris O'Dowd, messes up in a big way and pleads to her that he really, really likes her.

"Of course you do; everyone does," she tells him matter-of-factly. "I'm dope."

And then there's "Lady Macbeth," about a young woman in 19th-century England who's under the thumb of an emotionally abusive husband and his even-more-controlling father. The new bride, Katherine, played by up-and-coming actress Florence Pugh, is trapped in a world where she's expected to stay inside all day tending to the whims of the men around her. But she doesn't listen. Instead, she ventures out and starts an affair with one of her husband's lowly employees. Ultimately, when her newfound freedom is threatened, she'll stop at nothing — not even murder — to keep it.

"I'd say she's inspiring," Pugh said while in town for the premiere. Like her character, the actress has a fiery streak, and she's quick to defend Katherine, although she admits that homicide is taking things too far. "She's a kid, and she's been told 'no' so many times, and now she doesn't give a damn."

Katherine's methods might be extreme, but in a way, she closely resembles modern women, the actress said.

"Every woman growing up now will recognize her as what we're told we should be," Pugh said. "We should shout; we should move; if we don't like it, we do something. Pay gap? Let's shout at the bastards until something happens. So she's not something we can't access."

In other words, she's a character who flies into action when threatened. That sounds familiar.






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