SIFF 2018: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

A flashback one third of the way through the film of the lead actress laying on her back looking unamused while her boyfriend in a letter jacket makes out with her verifies that Desiree Akhavan has both seen and appreciates 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader.  While her new film The Miseducation of Cameron Post pays homage to the cult classic, in this and other moments, it also recognizes the gravity of the topic and treats the atrocity of conversation therapy with a more nuanced film.

Set in 1993, The Miseducation of Cameron Post tells the story of teenager Cameron Post (portrayed by Chloë Grace Moretz) who is caught making love to her best friend (also a woman) during their homecoming dance.  Outed, her religious aunt, whom she’s lived with since her parents died, sends her to a conversion camp.  There under the guidance of siblings Reverend Rick and Dr. Lydia Marsh, the assumption is that she will stay until she no longer has any same sex attraction.

While at the camp she meets a variety teenagers all there for the same reason, and quickly befriends Jane (played by Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) after running across the two of them sneaking away to smoke.  They represent the voice of reason in the camp, resigned to their imprisonment but refusing to accept that there is anything wrong with them or that they can change.  The other residents in the camp don’t necessarily share their healthy outlook.  Many of them, notably including Cameron’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), genuinely share the religious outlook of the camp, and want to be “cured”.

The film understands that many characters in this predicament will be crushed with self-hatred over what they perceive to be a personal fault or “sin”. It blatantly disagrees with this sentiment, but doesn’t allow the confused to be villainized.  Akhavan cares as much for her characters who feel they need to change as she does for the questioning leads.  This reality is where Akhavan distances herself from and improves upon the camp of But I’m a Cheerleader.  Conversion therapy is real, deplorable, and ruins lives, something which The Miseducation of Cameron Post doesn’t shy away from.

While Chloë Grace Moretz is great in the titular role, Sasha Lane’s return to film after her 2016 debut in American Honey stole the show.  Lane has a presence to her that’s captivating.  She encapsulates the type of hope that can only come from existing in a terrible situation much like she did in American Honey.  Even given a gimmick of having a fake leg, Lane’s character exists as a person first, a feat most actors her age would be unable to overcome.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post was the Grand Jury Prize winner of Sundance for 2018, and justifiably so.  Escaping the quirky, twee, indie moniker that so frequently plagues the Sundance output, it resonates as a film focusing on a terrible reality.  It does all this without losing its characters in melodrama thanks to strong direction, writing, and acting.

Revenge: Exploitation with a Woman’s Touch

Content Warning: Revenge is a rape revenge film, as such this work mentions rape on numerous occasions.


A staple subgenre of exploitation film is that of rape revenge.  While numerous in quantity, these films all follow the basic plot structure indicated in their genre’s name: a woman is raped by a man or group of men after which she or, in case of her death, her family exact revenge upon the rapist or rapists. Epitomized by the critically panned I Spit on Your Grave from 1978 these films tend to be graphic in their portrayal of both the assault and the ensuing revenge feeding into their exploitative roots.  Despite the violence inherent in them, some films in the genre do receive critical acclaim, most notably are 1981’s Ms. 45 and 1972’s The Last House on the Left which itself is a reimagining of the film The Virgin Spring connecting film legend Ingmar Bergman of all people to this genre.

The existence of the critically approved films in the genre make it an anomaly in the world of exploitation film, and this respect brings with it the need for critical examination.  When considering rape revenge films from a feminist lens, once again the genre’s name exposes the bulk of the topic.  The resolution to the film (i.e. the revenge) is a glorification of female kickassery.  Watching the wronged woman exert her revenge over the man/ men responsible seems a triumph for womanhood.  Conversely the initial rape especially when being played for exploitation can result in an abhorrently antifeminist piece.

For a genre so reliant on the performance of women, Coralie Fargeat is unexpectedly unique as a woman director. She helms the recent French release Revenge, her entry into the rape revenge canon.  In terms of plot, Revenge appears a standard entry into the genre.  Jen (Matilda Ana Ingrid Lutz) is raped and left for dead, but upon escaping her perilous situation plans and executes her revenge by killing the three men who wronged her.  However, within this standard setup, Fargeat makes subtle choices that reflect her kinship with the victim and an understanding of the best that the genre can be.

The standard rape revenge plot involves a woman on her own catching the eye of a man or group of men who otherwise didn’t know her as assailants.  However, in Revenge Jen’s rapist is the friend of Richard (Kevin Janssens), the man she is in a sordid relationship with.  She meets her rapist Stan (Vincent Colombe) the night before when he and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) arrive at Richard’s vacation home a day early for their annual hunting trip. Embracing the situation, the four of them party that night without incident.  It’s not until the next day when Richard is out that Stan feels empowered to assault Jen. Because of Jen’s friendly disposition the preceding night partying, he feels entitled to sex with her, and when she refuses he takes matters into his own hands.

Unexpectedly for the genre, despite introducing three men, Stan is the only one to physically rape Jen, yet the actions of the other two men don’t allow them a claim to innocence.  Dimitri walks in on the assault during its onset, and while he does turn down Stan’s invitation to join, his guilt comes from allowing the rape to take place.  Richard doesn’t return until the incident is over, but digs his own grave by refusing to assign any blame and attempting to buy silence from Jen.

These two variations on the rape portion of the film, the familiarity of the assailant and the expansion of culpability, combined with the fact that the rape itself wasn’t graphically shown mark progressive decisions made by Fargeat.  Transitioning the rapist from a stranger off the street to an acquaintance who feels they’re deserving of sex grounds the film by creating a more believable inciting incident.  Similarly, the other two men’s villainy of protecting their monster of a friend better reflects the systemic world in which almost all sexual assaults go without consequence.

Only upon reaching the second act does Revenge fully embraces its exploitative roots.  Gore, drugs, and a booming synth score awash Jen as she destroys those who wronged her.  Even without Jen’s presence, Fargeat as writer/ director is able to emasculate the rapist Stan for her own revenge.  This writing imbues the revenge with a sense of levity, and shows a deep understanding of when rape revenge films are at their best.  The decision to make the initial situation as realistic as possible juxtaposed with the absurdity of the revenge creates the tonal shift necessary when traversing such dense and divergent topics.

Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge brings a new progressive life to the rape revenge genre.  By toning down the exploitation in the rape, the revenge is allowed to carry out the film’s catharsis in a healthier manner.  Too often these films overstep the violence against the victim muddying the film’s message.  The rape should never be the selling point of a rape revenge film.  It’s because of Revenge’s understanding of this that it succeeds, and hopefully it can serve as a guidepost for the genre moving forward.

What makes a Feminist Icon? Tiny Shoulders, Rethinking Barbie’s Argument for Barbie

Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, directed by the Oscar nominated Andrea Blaugrund Nevis, presents its audience with an ambitious thesis, that Barbie is a feminist icon despite the years of backlash against the toy.  The documentary argues this through a mix of Barbie’s history as well as Project Dawn, the redesign Barbie went through in 2016, as it was in development.

By focusing on the bookending time periods, Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie is able to argue its feminist thesis without condoning the image problems that it developed given the impossibility of Barbie’s physical features.  It uplifts her origins as an excuse for the image problems it would develop decades down the line, and even accepts that its image in the 90s and early 2000s was problematic.  The failure to develop beyond that criticism for such a long period of time is attributed to the cost of change, and the members of Project Dawn are painted almost as martyrs, changing a beloved icon for the sake of social responsibility

Coming out at the infancy of the second wave of feminism, the documentary places Barbie as an important symbol of the movement.  Being a women developed brand in the late 1950s was ahead of its time.  The film asserts that “because Ruth Handler was running a company and Charlotte Johnson, Barbie’s first dress designer, had always been a woman on her own who worked, from the get-go Barbie’s outfits included paraphernalia for some sort of a job.”  In a time when women were still supposed to aspire to housemaker, Barbie glorified working women, and even gave her jobs that real women had yet to attain such as astronaut in 1965.

While not expressly said in the film, the juxtaposition of Barbie’s feminist origin with the acknowledgment that Barbie’s original image has become problematic implies a necessity for Barbie’s look in its birth.  The documentary’s attempt to answer this assumption focuses on the importance of Barbie actually having breasts so girls could have a doll to emulate, a doll that looked like their mother.  This argument however does nothing to answer why an impossible figure was chosen if relatability were the actual goal.  In fact the documentary identifies that Barbie’s physical inspiration as coming from the Bild Lilli dolls which were German facsimiles of call girls marketed towards men for the purpose of objectification.  While Barbie’s marketing may have indicated a change in purpose, the design similarities betray its goals, or lack thereof, of portraying real women.

After decades of diminishing sales and the loss of political graces, the second half of Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie follows the creative team behind Barbie into the planning stages of Project Dawn, Mattel’s attempt to rescue the reputation of its trademark doll.  These people are tasked with the nigh impossible task of modernizing Barbie’s look without betraying her brand.

The documentary follows the creative staff through development meetings.  The heart of these people is clearly in the correct places as they struggle with Barbie’s image and lose sleep over the damage their creation may be causing.  What’s unfortunate is that the motivation of these creatives are restrained by their corporate’s resistance to change.  Presenting the idea of a larger or taller Barbie comes chained with the corporate nightmare of having Barbies who become unable to share shoes with one another, a detail which should be inconsequential when compared to creating a social conscious product, but is instead seen as a red flag to a company focused on its bottom line.

The design team comes to their decision and releases three new bodies to accompany the original: tall (and skinny), petite (and skinny), and curvy (approximately size 12).  Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie sits in with the creative team as they await the release of their Time Magazine cover story, unsure of the spin the periodical will put on their project.  Much to their relief, it is welcomed with open arms.  Both Time and the social media reaction at large embrace the new, more inclusive Barbie.

To give credit where it’s due, Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie does not unequivocally praise Project Dawn, but allows for nuance in the decision.  This is best articulated by Feminist author Roxanne Gay upon seeing curvy Barbie for the first time: “Oh, this is big girl Barbie [laughs] okay.  I mean, it’s progress; then again the bar’s low. I would love to see an actual fat Barbie… This is a step in the right direction.  We have to acknowledge it or they’ll never make more.” A step in the right direction is what Project Dawn is; something that the people involved with should be proud of, yet not the game changer that it was marketed as.  Barbie’s newfound inclusivity may make her less problematic now than she’s been in decades, but less problematic is not synonymous with progressive.

Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie had an uphill battle in rescuing the reputation of the oft-maligned doll.  While the early representation she afforded women were an undeniable positive image, the male gaze aspects of her origin question how positive an influence she could be.  Even with Project Dawn, the changes to Barbie feel overly calculated and corporate approved.  I have no doubt that the women and men who worked on the project are happy with their accomplishment, and it’s true that they created progress.  Unfortunately removing the thigh gap on a doll modeled after a man’s call-girl-fantasy proves insufficient in creating a doll that all women can look to as a reflection of self.  Yes it’s progress, but progress alone does not make something a feminist icon.

Una Mujer Fantástica: A completely biased review

Only two years removed from the travesty that was the Oscar winning, exploitative The Danish Girl, transgender cinema returns to Hollywood’s biggest stage, but this time in a more progressive manner. Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman) eschews the artificial melodrama of self-discovery and transition, which have plagued these stories in the past, to focus on the reality of a woman who knows who she is but faces nigh constant humiliation because of the world’s refusal to accept her.  This refocus from the cisgender expectation of what it means to be transgender to the transgender reality, results in a piece that is at the same time both more personal and more universal.


Una Mujer Fantástica begins as Orlando (an older gentleman played by Francisco Reyes) picks up his partner Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) from her job as a nightclub singer to take her out for her birthday.  In this date, their relationship for each other is exposed as being genuine, built on mutual respect.  The way that Marina says Orlando’s name and the way they hold each other conveys their love for one another.  After an evening of food and dancing, they return home to celebrate their love physically.

That night, Orlando has an aneurysm and Marina rushes him to a hospital.  Left in the hallway confused, Marina is forced to wait until a doctor is willing to talk with her, albeit after insulting her identity.  After the initial shock and mourning, she composes herself and reaches out to Orlando’s brother Gabo whom she rightly guesses will be the most sympathetic of Orlando’s family to her.  Gabo arrives and after degrading Marina once more takes over for Marina as the point of contact.

The remainder of the film becomes a series of injustices towards Marina.  The validity of her relationship, and of her identity are time and time again questioned whether it be a police investigator accusing her of being a prostitute, Orlando’s ex-wife baring Marina from attending the wake and funeral, or Orlando’s son attacking her.  Marina’s life becomes a hellscape which she struggles to mourn through.


The casting of actual transgender actress, Daniela Vega, proves an important mold break from Hollywood’s penchant for casting men to play transgender women.  Through her experiences, she’s able to bring a truth to the character of Marina as she’s subjected to the humiliations that transgender women live with on a day to day basis.  This is in stark contrast to the exploitative revelation shots of men adorning women’s clothing for the first time that frequently plague these films.  Vega feels real, she knows what it means to be transgender.

When confronted with microaggressions, instead of overreacting, she bites her tongue and affects a dejected look.  The minute changes in facial expression and posture speak volumes to the injustice she is subjected on the spot as well as the learned ability to hide behind a mask and take the abuse in toe.  Scenes of her breaking down in tears falling to her knees in the bathroom enhance this understanding of extended abuse.

Sebastián Lelio’s decision to keep the camera on Vega at all times drives the film.  The story of the hatred expressed by Orlando’s family is permitted to take second fiddle to the emotional rollercoaster that becomes Marina’s life.  The cracks in her psyche allow Lelio to take narrative risks.  Marina’s trauma causes her to hallucinate Orlando at various moment, which seems less a narrative necessity and more a result of the compromised state of Marina’s life at the moment.  As Marina’s grieving progresses, the film loses track of its original plot becoming solely a character study.  Instead of Orlando’s funeral being another gut wrenching set piece, the audience sees it through the eyes of the nearly delirious Marina as she grasps for anything that can bring her some sense of comfort or normalcy.


I chose to see Una Mujer Fantástica as I see most films, alone.  Knowing only the very basics of the film’s premise before it began, I anticipated it would be an emotional experience.  I have no shame over crying and in fact embrace films that are able to produce feelings visceral enough to do so.  Una Mujer Fantástica, however, did not produce a cathartic emotional cleanse.  Instead, it was more akin to repeated punches in the gut.  I sobbed, squirmed and clung at my sweater as I searched for a release from panic when confronted by the reality that was staring me back in the face under the guise of fiction.

As a fellow trans woman, I felt a kinship with Marina.  Her struggle for respect resonates with me even though I’ve never been in her exact situation.  Like her, I have been called a man, asked what my real name was, pestered about the state of my genitalia, and otherwise humiliate or attacked.  These incidents are not limited to interactions with especially hateful individuals either, but are representative of everyday life.  Very little compassion exists in this world for transgender people.  Despite being whom we are, we’re often left feeling like a chimera as Sonia (Orlando’s ex-wife) calls Marina.

The insults levied against Marina from the people she’s forced to interact with span from casual ignorance to blatantly malicious attacks.  Even before Orlando’s family arrives, the doctor who finally discusses Orlando’s death with Marina starts be questioning the validity of her name.  By stating that Marina is a “nickname” his ignorance places her in an unsafe environment to receive some of the worst news of her life.   Similarly, the most “supportive” family member, Gabo, upon first introduction declares his disgust for Marina when he refers to her presence with Orlando as a “delicate situation”.

The more malicious aggressions that Marina is exposed to maintain a level of truth that many cisgender people may not understand as realities of the trans experience.  The police inspector’s initial assumption that Marina must be a prostitute reflects an underlining stereotype that transgender people are nothing more than sex objects.  Orland’s son Bruno threatens her violently again a feeling not unfamiliar to many trans people.  Though it’s the slew of disrespect that comes from Sonia that Marina is just forced to bare that stings the most.  Calling Marina a perversion, abnormal, deadnaming her and denying her the closure of attending the funeral in order to “protect” her daughter shows that she’s less than a person in Sonia’s, and by proxy the “normal” world’s, eyes.  These only scratch the multitutes of transgressions that Marina is subjected to, and that transgender people have to endure on a day to day basis.


Given the reflection on reality, it’s difficult to say if Una Mujer Fantástica inspires hope.  As a story, it feels more a reminder of every day pains than an uplifting narrative. However, that truth could be that its most important asset is in inspiring change.  It has the power to teach others of the casual cissexism that plagues every day as a transgender woman.  By calling out some of the simpler microaggressions that people who would be allies are guilty of, it has the ability to make the world a less toxic environment for us.  The fact that Una Mujer Fantástica is a brilliant film headed by an emotional performance from a transgender woman lends credence to the hope that it will inspire change.


Feigning Feminism: The Problem with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Accepting her Golden Globe for best actress, Frances McDormand announced her support for the women in Hollywood movement by declaring herself “to be a part of the tectonic shift in our industry’s power structure”.  Later that evening, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri went on to win best picture presumably on the back of McDormand’s acting and the feminist message she felt the film portrayed.  But is the juxtaposition of Three Billboards within the women in film movement appropriate?

McDormand’s Mildred Hayes as a character is supposed to embody the women’s empowerment movement.  She rallies against the men who failed to do their job in service of both her and her daughter and exhibits an outrage towards those men.  Her outrage serves as a nationwide catharsis in this tumultuous time.  Women, and to some extent men, are yearning for the dethronement of the patriarchy in the Donald Trump and #MeToo era, and Three Billboards serves as a calculated release to capitalize on that momentum.

While reveling in the catharsis of Mildred’s dismantling of the men who let her down, one must not be blinded to the moments in which the film fails to be properly uplifting of women.  Frances McDormand is an amazing actor, but even the best actors are limited by the script and direction that they are given.  Martin McDonagh as both writer and director intrinsically limits the amount to which Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri can belong to this movement.  Between the characterizations of Mildred and the other women in the film, it becomes clear that McDonagh is merely feigning feminism in hopes of riding the shifting paradigm to commercial success.  His understanding of women lacks depth.  When Mildred is at her strongest, she feels of nothing more than a male protagonist with a pair of breasts; no effort is made to represent female strength.  The concept that strong is equivalent to male remains even when the strength is ostensibly being applied to a woman.


Despite the film’s overall flawed nature, some service does need to be offered to Frances McDormand specifically in her portrayal of Mildred Hayes.  Mildred is a damaged woman; she was abused by her cop ex-husband but was denied any retribution when the case came down to “he said she said”.  Separated from him, her life was dealt another blow by the murder of her daughter.  These incidents in relatively quick succession leave the character of Mildred overloaded with pain.  There are few moments in the film when this pain is allowed to surface in a believable way.   The single strongest scene of the film highlights one of these moments.  In the first introduction of the ex-husband, Mildred begins defensive in her interaction with Charlie as he barges into her home.  She is quickly forced to surrender her strong façade when he throws her into a wall, grabbing her by the neck.  Even after he leaves she is shaken and left to contemplate how she ended up in this situation and how she can cope.  Moments like this reflect a depth to Mildred that is unfortunately left unexplored elsewhere.

Even when it comes to Mildred’s strengths, McDonagh isn’t completely oblivious to his leading lady.  The film opens with the lone moment in which Mildred’s strength resonates as genuine to her character.  The decision to rent the titular billboards are aptly equated to as a chess move by their object of ridicule, Sheriff Willoughby.  They reflect an understanding of how others operate and were a calculated decision to force action when other conventions had failed.  As the film’s centerpiece, they introduce Mildred as a tactician; she’s someone who manipulates the situation she was dealt to server her purpose.  Mildred appears a woman who only acts after careful forethought.

These lofty expectations lead to near immediate disappointment.  The first formal complaint against Mildred comes from the town dentist, and in response, Mildred displays none of the tact of the women who brilliantly rented the billboards.  Instead she shows up in his office and resorts to spontaneous violence.  After calculating a move that would induce action while following the letter of the law, she undermines herself by committing assault, jeopardizing her goals.  This impulsivity and aggression is reflective of the masculine ideal of strength; it focuses on reaction instead of action.  Violence is seen as a natural progression despite being the underlying cause of strife.

The betrayal of Mildred’s intuition peaks with the climax of the film.  The span of a few weeks proving insufficient in the finding of her daughter’s killer, Mildred again succumbs to her anger in a destructive manner.  Gone is the woman who used public shaming as a way to encourage action.  In her place is a masculine action hero, committing acts of terrorism as a way to cope.  This turn of character is nothing more than a male power fantasy.  In that moment, any claim to the creation of a strong woman character becomes completely null and void.  McDonagh under the guise of women empowerment, created his own personal Rambo.


In contrast to the masculine strength projected by Mildred, all of the other women in the film are weak and contribute nothing to the film.  They either are props to be used by the men of the town, or are played as simple for a degrading insult.  Even if one were to overlook the masculinization of Mildred as merely a symptom of the systemic misogyny in our society and not a conscious decision, the insulting use of all of the other women can be seen as nothing short of malicious.

Denise is the most squandered of the supporting women in the film.  As Mildred’s seemingly only friend, she should have given the viewer an insight into Mildred’s life.  Further, as a black woman in rural Missouri, in a city already shown to have a racism problem, her experiences could easily have helped to flush out the struggles with police effectiveness in Ebbing.  Instead she’s almost immediately jailed on possession charges as a way of hammering home the concept of Officer Dixon’s arrogance and racist tendencies, neither of which needed the additional support to be understood.

Three of the remaining women in the film all serve as pure comic relief.  Dixon’s mother exists only to make a fool of him by her existence.  She provides no meaningful dialogue or character development, but allows the characters and viewers alike the opportunity to laugh at Dixon.  As a woman she could have acted as a liaison for Mildred’s side to one of her greatest detractors.  Instead she is nothing more than an adjective for Dixon: “Lives with his mother”.

While Dixon’s mother could have served a purpose, Red Welby’s Secretary Anne, and Penelope (the current girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband) should have never been included as characters without a drastic re-write.  They are insultingly simple and completely lack any awareness of their surroundings or of how basic human interaction works. The implication is that both of them seem to get by solely on their attractiveness, and that intelligence is something reserved for the men of Ebbing Missouri.


Given McDonagh’s rendering of the other women of Ebbing pointless, the testosterone infused version of Mildred can only be opposed by the men of the town.  This, it turns out, serves as the final nail in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s misogynist coffin.  Mildred, despite having every reason to be, isn’t even the hero of her film.  That title, for some reason, is reserved for the misogynistic, racist, homophobic Officer Dixon for which Sam Rockwell also won an acting Golden Globe.

Dixon is the only character who goes through any developmental arc.  He begins the film a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, lazy police officer and ends it a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, dedicated police officer.  After losing his job for assaulting an innocent civilian, he is shocked to learn that for the first time, actions have consequences for white men in rural Missouri (it’s made clear throughout the film that he should have lost his job ten times over at this point).  After losing his job, he shows no remorse for his actions, only for their result.  Somehow in his mind he equates finally taking a level of ownership for his former job as retribution for throwing someone out a window.

In the end, Mildred’s billboards were moot in purpose as the second most despicable character in the film is awarded the title of hero for catching the lone worse one.  By doing his job for the first time, albeit after he lost it, Dixon stakes his claim for the actual lead of the film.  Had Mildred been billed as a secondary character, nothing would have changed.  The film is Dixon’s, and any claim to a feminist motivation behind the film can only be seen as disingenuous when taking the resolution into consideration.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a case of playing to a national conversation despite lacking the necessary content to support the movement.  Martin McDonagh is no more a feminist than any other director, and his most recent outing only receives the accolades it does because of its timing and assumed message on paper.  In reality, Mildred lacks the genuineness in her moments of strength to act as a role model, and no other woman is allowed to be even two dimensional let alone three.  Instead, this supposed feminist piece is yet another story of a privileged white man momentarily losing his way only to be rewarded for fixing one part of his life despite continuing to be an awful person.  Women deserve better than this well-trodden male attempt at feminism.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird

New Release Reviews - 20171119 Lady Bird

Directory: Greta Gerwig

Year: 2017

Bechdel Test: Pass

From her days as a mumblecore (yeah I said it) actress and writer to her relationship, both personally and professionally, with Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig has solidified herself as an indie darling.  Lady Bird marks her debut as a director, but her voice resonates so deeply that it’s like she had always been one.  With just her first film, Gerwig has staked a claim to the title of auteur.  Despite not having an acting roll, every moment of the film seems specifically of the world in which Gerwig’s previous characters exist.

Lady Bird spans a full year, specifically Christine “Lady Bird’s” final year of high school the same year that Gerwig herself graduated (2002-2003).  By focusing on such a tumultuous time in a young woman’s life, the film is able to explore a variety of relationship dynamics without being slave to a traditional plot.  The prospect of leaving the life she’s known for one of her own results in an excuse to experiment with social identities.  Throughout her senior year, she dates two vastly different boys and explores a new, more risqué friend group, leaving her longest friends behind, and tests her connection with family while seeking to leave them behind.

Saoirse Ronan plays the titular Lady Bird, a name she bestowed upon herself much to the chagrin of her mother.  Together they serve as each other’s object of antagonization.  Lady Bird as a high school senior can almost taste the incoming freedom that college will allow her, and longs to escape Sacramento which she sees as her prison.  Her mother Marion, Laurie Metcalf, stresses herself with reality.  She works double shifts at the psychiatric clinic so her family can scrape by while her husband is unemployed.  She sees Lady Bird’s ambitions as frivolous quirks that should be stamped out in favor of more plausible ones.  Her motivations reflect the reality that she knows, but this practicality barricades her from understanding her daughter.  Despite these inherent differences in world view, Lady Bird and her mom still maintain a mother daughter relationship.  Little moments between the two of them break through as genuinely sweet connections.

Gerwig’s direction brings voice to the women in her film. Characters are imbued with humanly and react with the nuance that reflects this.  When events don’t turn out how Lady Bird would expect, her emotions reflect the wide gambit that a young woman’s would.  Through all of her trials she seeks refuge in her friend Julie, Beanie Feldstein.  Long evenings crying to Dave Matthew’s Band’s “Crash” in a way the feels both ironic and genuine.  They understand each other deeper than anyone else, and even months of fighting can be forgotten when they need each other.  Their friendship reflects the unique bond that women share.  This connection even more than the mother daughter one exemplifies Gerwig’s inherent understanding of her characters.  The honesty in their emotions brings a level of relatability to the viewer.  Their relationship resonates with other women in its reality.

Lady Bird’s relationships with the men in her life also reflect an understanding from a woman’s side of the interactions.  When catching her boyfriend making out with another guy, she responds with anger.  She has no interest in the opportunity to have a gay best friend, but is hurt and betrayed.  Her emotions need time to heal before she can fulfill the expected stereotypical relationship a less in tune director would default to.  Likewise, her second boyfriend’s nonchalant disregard for her attracts her, but instead of playing off the tired trope of women liking bad boys, she attaches herself to specific traits in him.  She knows that he’s flawed but find that she can use his flaws almost as effectively as he can use her.  She does her best to resist the eventual heartbreak, and when it inevitably comes, she’s able to rebound much quicker because of this arm’s length detachment.

Lady Bird is one of those few films that is genuinely perfect.  Gerwig’s voice is everything that American Independent cinema needs.  She can exchange the tired cliché roles reserved for women in the quirky Sundance genre with genuine, deep, lead performances.  Saoirse Ronan isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, nor is she any other twee trope.  The beauty of Lady Bird’s character and Ronan’s performance is that she’s you and me.  She is every young woman struggling to etch out her place in life resisting the circumstances that would insist she follow a standard path.

The Florida Project

The Florida Project

New Release Reviews - 20171109 The Florida Project

Directory: Sean Baker

Year: 2017

Bechdel Test: Pass

Some background is necessary before I can get into Sean Baker’s newest film The Florida Project in earnest.  I do my best to go into all films as blind as possible.  I avoid trailers and reviews outside of general buzz as to not cloud my judgement.  Despite going into The Florida Project knowing next to nothing, I was always going to love this film.  Baker’s previous film Tangerine came out right as I was transitioning, and his understanding and depiction of trans women instantly endeared him to me.  For the first time I could recall, a director depicted someone like me as a fully formed person and not a punch line or exploitative cash in.

The Florida Project doesn’t include any trans characters, but Baker’s love for underappreciated communities again shows through.  This time he focuses on a welfare community in an Orlando motel.  Brooklynn Prince plays the young Moonee who lives in a cut-rate room with her mother Halley played by Bria Vinaite.  Moonee spends her days playing with the other children who occupy the nearby hotels and frequently harassing her hotel manager Bobby expertly played by Willem Dafoe.

Despite a rather climactic ending, The Florida Project is sparse on plot instead focusing on relationships like Tangerine.  Moonee is the center of everything and her distinctive relationships with her peers (specially Jancey played by Valeria Cotto), her mother, and her authority figure (Bobby) drive the film.  These relationships from the eyes of a young girl reflect an underserved demographic.  Young coming of age stories from boys are a dime a dozen, but seeing a young girl’s story and relationships is a unique story.

Moonee’s relationship with her peers represent allow her an escape from the struggles that her reality entails.  She befriends Jancey on the day that she and her grandmother move in after earning a less than stellar first impression by covering her grandmother’s car in spit.  Moonee assures Jancey’s mother to “relax, your daughter is safe in my hands” instinctively taking Jancey under her wing.  Moonee has learned how to be a child despite the circumstances, and in her leadership position, includes Jancey on her adventures.

Life, even in the poorest of circumstances maintains its mystery to them.  A “safari” culminating in a cow in a field entertains the same as a trip to Disney World would.  Through these explorations, they form a bond stronger than a normal childhood friendship.  Playdates seem less a source of entertainment, and more a necessity of life be it begging for ice cream and lunch or escaping to the abandoned housing development and pretending they have a better life.

Halley and Moonee’s relationship is the most nuanced of the focuses.  Halley clearly loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but is forced to subject her to dangers in order to do so.  Moonee’s pension for running from authority is a learned skill from her mother.  Together they break the law scalping brand name perfume or stolen Disney passes.  As her situation becomes more and more desperate, she turns to selling sexual favors, but through her love of Moonee turns taking bikini pictures into a bonding time.  The mother daughter bonding and love feels genuine, and brings an additional level of heartbreak to their situation.  Deep down Halley knows that she can’t provide Moonee with the life that she deserves, but sacrifices everything she can to keep them together for as long as possible.  Moonee reciprocates these feelings, but does so through the eyes of a child.  She may not always get along with Halley, but always comes back to her for safety.

Willem Dafoe’s character acts as the bridge between the fantasy of the children, and the reality of their parents.  Given his property for their playground, the children of the welfare hotel constantly create more work for him, and he’s justifiably enraged as they break into the maintenance room and pull the power switch.  And yet, he sees them as they are: children trapped in an unfortunate situation.  Bobby does his best to protect their naivety between urging naked sun bathers to cover and at one point chasing away an assumed predator.  It’s his worry for Moonee that enables his lenience with Halley.  On multiple occasions, he issues her a “final” warning to pay rent on time, but his soft side shows through as he does his best to keep them housed to the extent that he can given his position.

Moonee’s innocence is only broken by the threat of losing her mother when it’s exposed that she’s prostituting herself to maintain rent.  She runs from the social workers to Jancey’s place and finally breaks down in tears as her harsh reality surfaces.  For the first time Moonee starts to cry.  Given the level of hardship she remained unfazed through, the young Prince’s emotion is palpable in its intensity.  Seeing her friend in such a vulnerable place, Jancey instinctively assumes Moonee’s role and takes her on an escape allowing her to remain in childhood if only a little longer.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Current Reviews - Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Directory: Angela Robinson

Year: 2017

Bechdel Test: Pass

After the blockbuster success of this summer’s Wonder Woman, Angela Robinson aspires to tell a different kind of origin story.  Leaving the world of fantasy, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, delves into the taboo circumstances that led to the character’s inspiration and creation.

The titular Marston, is Radcliffe professor Bill Marston played by Luke Evans.  Aided by his wife Elizabeth (expertly portrayed by Rebecca Hall), an aspiring professor Marston herself, they use one of his psychology courses to lure in a young woman as a research assistant/ subject.  Olive Byrne, Bella Heathcote, catches their interest, and applies for the position.

The intimate nature of their research leads to a sexual and romantic tension growing between the three, and the eventual beginning of a polyamorous relationship.  This relationship had no home in the 1920’s and led to the firing/ expulsion of all three.  Olive’s pregnancy acts as the catalyst they needed to make a go at a hidden, permanent polyamorous relationship.  The second half of the film explores their relationship, and how it influences Bill in his eventual creation of the Wonder Woman comics in its original sexualized nature.

The reality of Wonder Woman’s inspiration comes from decades of Bill Marston’s life experiences, and this scope proves too ambitious for the relatively inexperienced Robinson.  The story of the trio’s time at Radcliffe is the strength of the film, but unfortunately in order to tie their relationship into the Wonder Woman comics, this portion of their lives is relegated to less than half the film.  Once they leave the school 20 years of plot are rushed through to provide the necessary background instead of allowing the three to naturally exist and explore their relationship.

The film may have been better served omitting the Wonder Woman narrative all together.  In addition to scope issues, Bill himself is a dreadfully unlikable character, and using his creation as the driving force of the story is a disservice to the wonder women.  In the opening minutes of the film Elizabeth is introduced as the Marston with intuition into the human psyche.  When first observing Olive, before she even enrolls as their assistant, Bill displays a complete lack of understanding of her circumstances and motivations.  Elizabeth imparts the reality of a woman’s experience while being hounded by men onto him, exposing his naivety.  After Olive joins their research, Bill’s technique is exposed as voyeuristic and perverse.  Throughout the film, Bill is never portrayed as overcoming these character flaws, and as such it is difficult to accept the thesis in the framework that his use of sex in the original Wonder Woman comics is anything but exploitative.

Congruent to the screenplay issues, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women suffers from tonal unevenness.  The strength of the film comes in its levity.  Elizabeth and Olive have a wonderful playfulness to their interaction, but this is frequently bogged down by moments of melodrama as more taboo subjects are introduced in an exploitative manner.  This tonal dichotomy is most apparent in the initial polyamorous sex scene.  Punctuated by verbose score, the exploration in alternating kisses between the three of them screams “Look at me and be shocked”.  Yet after the inciting moments of the scene, the score pivots into a playful brass section and the three of them finally appear to suddenly find enjoyment in their sex, playfully raiding the costume wardrobe of the university stage and engaging in less stringent acts.  They are left to play in a more realistic manner bringing a more human feel.

Numerous flaws notwithstanding, an underlying voice inside me can’t help but scream its adoration for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.  After an Oscar worthy performance in Christine, Rebecca Hall returns and is once again nearly perfect as Elizabeth Marston.  She exhibits brilliant nuance as a woman striving for respect, yet finding herself in a taboo love that threatens what her life ambitions.  In conjunction with Hall’s portrayal, Angela Robinson flexes the screenwriting strength she does possess through Elizabeth and Olive’s interactions.  She captures the inherent difference in the way that men and women perceive others.  Elizabeth and Olive question each other and have intimate discussions genuinely entrenched in a women’s reality.  Their ability to understand the importance of subtext while Bill remains a slave to the overt text reflects a feminine reality in a way that few films do.  Robinson understand the depth of women’s relationships, and in a male driven medium, this depiction of reality is refreshing.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women attempts to do too many things.  Between telling a decades long love story, examining the origins of an iconic superhero, and exploring taboo, sex-positive themes, the film had very little odds to execute any successfully.  Yet Angela Robinson’s understanding of women interaction propped up by Rebecca Hall’s excellence ensured a level of success unique enough to redeem many of its faults.  While not an excellent film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women justifies its existence through its entry as a sex-positive, feminist film.

Paris is Burning My Heart

Paris is Burning

52 Films - 20170824 Paris is Burning

Director: Jennie Livingston
Year: 1990

Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning”, is a pillar of queer cinema that had managed to evade me until just recently.  In her sole documentary outing to this day, Jennie explores Harlem’s 1980’s queer scene, focusing on the drag balls. Initially held exclusively for traditional drag queens, by the time of filming, they had expanded to include all people of color in Harlem’s queer community.  By focusing on both the balls as well as the stars who imbued the culture, she paints a story of life during that time for these otherwise abandoned people.

The stories of balls’ participants differentiate throughout the documentary varying from a strictly educational fare to a humanizing story of a previously hidden culture.  The elder, yet still elegant, drag queen Dorian Corey acts as tour guide.  Having performed in balls in their infancy when her brand of drag was the only brand, she had seen them evolve into the phenomenon that they had become.  She imparts how they expanded from purely showcasing feminine impersonation to opening their doors to the entire queer community.  They understood that everyone had a persona worth presenting and celebrating.

The expansion of drag culture to encompass individual expansions of all kinds is exemplified as Livingston follows Malcolm McLaren a master ball competitor in the category of his own invention: voguing.  It’s in this section that “Paris is Burning” veers deepest into a more traditional documentary approach.  Malcom and his dance craze are studied, and the origins of the pop culture phenomena are uncovered.  While interesting, and important to uncover these counter cultural roots, the deviation from the personal in this section feels a disservice to the goals of the rest of the film.

The introduction of the houses and house mothers, midway through the documentary, acts as a foil for the voguing section.  In these moments, the audience is both educated of the familial groups the castoffs create and presented with an in intimate view into the lives of the house mothers.  Dorian Corey, a mother of House of Corey herself, describes the purpose of the houses at which point the film directs it’s primary focus to House Xtravaganza.

Dorian’s introduction serves as the necessary background for “Paris is Burning”’s stars to shine.  Angie Xtravaganza, mother of House Xtravaganza, and her children are a returned to throughout the bulk of the film.  Instead of explaining the relationship between house mother and children, their actual relationships are captured.  Simply watching the film, allows the viewer to meet the fabricated family, and empathize with their plight.  Most having been exiled from their blood family, the house members rely on each other.  The houses provide sanctuary from the rampant homophobia and transphobia waiting for them outside.

Standout Xtravaganza star Venus serves as the emotional pillar of the film, outshining the rest of her siblings.  Despite existing in a time unaccepting of her identity, her comfort in herself is an inspiration.  She dreams of becoming a “spoiled, rich, white girl living in the suburbs” radiates naivety and hope.  Her innocence stays pure even as her actions don’t.  She shoplifts and partakes in sex worker to save money for her eventual gender confirmation surgery.

Before the documentary finishes filming however, Venus was strangled to death by a client, presumably distraught by Venus’s transgender identity.  As a trans woman myself, I broke into tears over Venus’s death.  Unable to watch the last twenty minutes until much later, I attempted to process what I saw.  The surrounding presence of transphobia was not hidden from the film, so the potential existed, but Venus was too real to accept her death.  I felt I lost a friend I had only met an hour before.

Personal anger and distress aside, Jennie Livingston was successful in the films goal, and including the details of Venus’s death were and important part of that.  She brings eyes to the Harlem ball scene, and introduces it’s wonderful participates, but the juxtaposition of hatred just outside the ballroom halls is what illuminates the most important purpose of the balls.  They served as a place where these personas could exist in safety since the outside world wouldn’t allow it.  Only through the decision to focus on the people, rather than the events themselves, was the emotional connection created to drive in the importance.  This understanding is why “Paris is Burning” holds up as a queer classic.  It’s more than a documentary of a fad, but a story of people’s lives.