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Alternatives to the Summer Blockbuster

May 4, 2007

The summer movie season kicks off this weekend with Spiderman 3 descending onto thousands of screens at a multiplex near you. Hollywood prognosticators predict the biggest grossing summer EVER with such sequels as the Pirates of the Caribbean, Fantastic Four, Harry Potter Die Hard and Shrek among others opening over the next three months. As an alternative to this mostly teen-targeted fare, look beyond the multiplex for films that highlight women’s stories. They also feature women as writers and directors, which is no accident. With women directors virtually shut out from the big budget films—according to the 2006 study from Dr. Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University, women directors account for just 7% of the top 250 films released, the same as 2005—the independent cinema world has become their place to thrive. Granted, thriving might be a stretch, but at least they are present. Less likely to receive offers of many films to direct, much less la crème de la crème, women are more likely to write scripts that they in turn can direct. Ironically, this dearth of opportunity at the highest level has created a wealth of stories of interest to women on the indie circuit. Three films that illustrate the richness of women’s contributions to independent cinema are currently in limited release: Waitress, Away From Her and Stephanie Daley. (If you can’t find them in your neighborhood, complain to your local theatre.)  Each film is written and directed by a woman and gives prominence to women’s issues in different, provocative ways. Adrienne Shelly is the director who was murdered November 1, 2006, in New York City. Her third, and final, feature Waitress tells the story of Jenna (played by Keri Russell), an unhappily married woman who finds herself pregnant. Shelley wrote the story when she was eight months pregnant and full of questions about the life she would lead after the birth of her daughter. In fact, the process of making Waitress led to her most creative period. Sadly, Shelley died before she found out her film was accepted into Sundance where it was embraced by both critics and the festival audience. Shelley uses the film to ask classic feminist questions that many women face alone as they go through pregnancy—especially those caught in abusive relationships. Jenna wonders why women are universally expected to be happy about pregnancy while she has a fleeting thought about selling the baby. Being pregnant enhances her fear of being stuck forever with her tormentor husband Earl. “How lonely it is to be a woman so poor and so afraid,” she remarks, imagining others caught in the same predicament as she discovers her own talents and works her way through these issues. Stephanie Daley, the second feature to be written and directed by Hilary Brougher, deals with pregnancy and childbirth in a profoundly different way. Amber Tamblyn stars as Stephanie, a 16-year-old girl about to go on trial for killing her baby. Tilda Swinton plays Lydie Crane, a forensic psychologist hired by the prosecutors to determine whether Stephanie knew she was pregnant before giving birth on a school ski trip. Lydie, herself 29 weeks pregnant, had conceived just three months after suffering a stillbirth. Brougher fluidly addresses such hot button issues as sex education, abstinence, the role of religion, and abortion as well as teen pregnancy in the story without one ounce of preaching. Lydie, in her late 30s or early 40s, knows that the window is closing on her ability to have kids and is convinced her husband is sleeping with someone else. She is guilty about the loss of a baby she never grieved for and nervous that her body is once again going to betray her. But it is the relationship between Stephanie and Lydie that is at the heart of the movie, as Stephanie doggedly sticks to the belief that she never knew she was pregnant—an all too common occurrence nowadays. The resolution of the story is handled with impressive tact and challenges the moviegoer in ways that most movies are not interested in doing. Away From Her, at the other end of life’s spectrum, deals with the challenges faced by a woman descending into the haze of Alzheimer’s. This is the first feature directed by 28-year-old indie actress Sarah Polley, which she adapted from Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”  Polley immediately pictured Julie Christie in the role of Fiona Andersson, and, happily for her audience, she succeeded in a heated pursuit to get the semi-retired actress to take on the role. Fiona has lived a contented life and settled into a comfortable retirement with her husband of 44 years. As they both become increasingly aware of her forgetfulness, Fiona makes the decision to enter a long-term care facility—her legacy to her husband, who will not be burdened with her care. Both Christie and Gordon Pinsent, who plays her husband Grant, are extraordinary as we see the loss on both their faces as he leaves her at the facility, neither of them knowing what to do next. This film defies Hollywood’s conventions, featuring a couple at the end of a long marriage and refusing to gloss over either their pain or their wrinkles. Polley brings the same intensity and emotion to directing as she does to her acting. May this be the first of many films with her at the helm. These films are just a sampling of the depth and breadth of women’s vision onscreen.  Other movies to look for this summer—featuring women’s stories but not directed by women—include: Georgia Rule, Gracie, La Vie En Rose, Evening, A Mighty Heart, Broken English, Fay Grim, No Reservations, Becoming Jane and Bordertown. As long as it remains difficult for women to get financing to make their films, and doubly so when those films focus on women’s issues, filmgoers need to seek out these movies that reflect their interests and sensibilities. Editor’s Note: On May 8, Georgia Rule, starring Women’s Media Center cofounder Jane Fonda, will have its New York premier as a benefit for the WMC. Please join us. Click here for ticket information.

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