Melissa Leo is probably my favorite actress of the moment. If given the opportunity, I would follow Leo blindly into a foxhole. I would probably skip too. That is how much I adore her. Not only is she a great character actress but she is also ridiculously off-the-cuff. This past Oscar season proved just how wonderfully over-the-top Leo can get. (Admittedly, I like my actors and actresses a little crazy as long as they don’t enter Charlie Sheen territory.)
My favorite performance from Leo is in Frozen River. Ray Eddy is a hard-edged unintentionally feminist anti-hero. Leo owns this character. I can’t think of any other actress who could portray Ray with the same level of grittiness and to the same degree of success.
Three of the recent movies I have seen – Something Borrowed, Bridesmaids, and Meek’s Cutoff – are seemingly unrelated. They vary in every possible way from their budgets to their settings to their overall quality. But linking them are strikingly disparate yet compelling female characters. These films are mostly written and directed by women. They are female-centric and are driven by complex female relationships that ultimately present unique representations of female identity. Above all they question the subtext of what movies try to tell us about women and the nature of movies that are marketed towards female audiences.
For more than a week, I have been trying to grasp exactly what I want to say about Meek’s Cutoff. My head has been swirling with many thoughts about the story, characters, performances, direction, and cinematography. What is it all working towards?
Fundamentally Meek’s Cutoff is a revisionist Western that centers on the lives of women as they cross the Oregon High Desert with their families. The group is led by guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who may be leading them no where. Tensions mount as water becomes scarce and the two-week journey becomes more arduous. When the group encounters and captures a Native American (Ron Rondeaux), the film shifts from a story about survival to a story about gender differences and fears of an ethnic other.
The women, played by Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan, represent three very different types, visually marked by the contrasting colors of their dresses and bonnets. They differ in age, are in different stages of their marriages and have different levels of individual agency. They are given little authority to make decisions although their work – cooking, cleaning, minding the children – is no less important.
That fact that director Kelly Reichardt focuses the film on these women emphasizes that their presence is more important than their male counterparts. We never hear the conversations these men have about what to do with their wayward guide or the Indian. It is instead the women, their conversations, their solidarity with one another, and above all their morality, that drives the narrative.
Meek’s Cutoff is less about its characters and performances (Williams’ character is the only one with any depth). It is more about how this story is stylistically told through realist tendencies and a slow, methodical progression.
I can’t help but turn my attention to the other post-9/11 independent films that fascinate me and how Meek’s Cutoff relates. Like Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff explores notions of identity. Yet the historical context of Meek’s Cutoff causes this exploration of self to encompass many complex layers. Gender, class, and Americanism all play a part in how the settlers exist and define themselves. Most telling is how these white settlers pit themselves against the non-white other emphasizes the early foundations of a long-standing American fear of the other. Kazan’s character Millie is a hysterical woman convinced that the Indian will kill the group; her hysterics are matched by the actions of the men. In a way this is on par with Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which places the fear of an ethnic other in a contemporary setting, a setting that revolves around post-9/11 anxieties. Meek’s Cutoff seems to ever so slightly offer a commentary on current relations with immigrants and how we define ourselves against someone else.
This post is a part of my ongoing Thesis Redux project. More here on the films I will be watching and writing about.
I always found it painfully ironic that Alice Guy-Blaché directed the first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux, in 1896. She directed more than 100 films, was the first woman to own and run a film studio, but her impact on film history was largely forgotten until recently.
Guy-Blaché’s career is representative of something greater. Female directors typically have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to get their films made. This has changed only slightly in the last 20 years, even as more and more female directors gain international recognition and even Academy Awards. Women are still most likely to be found working in the independent and avant-garde film circles, where there is a system – so to speak – established that makes it easier for female directors to get films made. Because female directors often work on the edge of the mainstream film industry, their films are sharper, feminist critiques on society than seen in most films.
Here is a list of female directors whose work I always seek out, along with one of their films I recommend.
I could keep going on and on with this list. Who is your favorite female director? Comment away!
There is one place I never envisioned myself on a Saturday night—sitting behind the Pioneer Valley Roller Derby team at a preview screening of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It. That is because one, I didn’t even know that there was a Pioneer Valley Derby League and two, everything Drew Barrymore touches typically makes me cringe. But Whip It is an entertaining and refreshing coming-of-age comedy that has made this notorious film snob less cynical.
Whip It stars Ellen Page (Juno) as Bliss Cavendar, a Texas teen who is constantly pressured by her controlling mother, Brooke (played by Marcia Gay Harden) to participate in beauty pageants. Bliss, however, wants nothing to do with pageant life. By chance, she and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development) attend a roller derby match and Bliss finds herself determined to join the Hurl Scouts, an Austin roller derby team. Suddenly Bliss finds herself embedded in the roller derby world, falling for the guitarist in a local band and lying to her parents about her newfound passion.
The roller derby world comes alive through the movie’s exceptional supporting actors. SNL’s Kristin Wiig plays Maggie Mayhem, Bliss’s mentor while Eve and Barrymore appear as Rosa Sparks and Smashley Simpson, Bliss’s teammates. Juliette Lewis plays Iron Maven, the trashtalking captain of a rival team. Andrew Wilson and Jimmy Fallon round out the supporting cast as the Hurl Scouts coach and the league’s bizarre emcee respectively. These characters provide the film with hilarious literal and figurative comedic punches.
At its heart Whip It is a teenage coming-of-age story. Yet it feels refreshingly real. That is in large part due to the focus paid to the heartfelt mother-daughter relationship. What on paper reads like a cliche—a daughter rebels from her strict upbringing only to find herself and to understand her mother along the way—feels much more than that. In one final scene, Brooke reads a sentimental note from Bliss. Rather than cut the scene, the camera lingers on Brooke’s expression longer than you would expect as both she and the audience realize how these two characters have grown. The inclusion of this particular scene shows how Whip It benefits from having a female vision behind the film.
Female directors rarely direct feature-length commercial Hollywood films. As someone who has been in the film industry since the age of five, Drew Barrymore is a logical person to transition from acting to directing. Her presence in the male-dominated directing field will certainly enliven Hollywood’s representations of women. Whip It is a reflection of this. The film’s sharp and sassy humor, focus on individuality and independence, and overall empowering message make Whip It a must-see movie of the fall.