Review: Girlfriends

Girlfriends (1978)
Director: Claudia Weill
Writers: Claudia Weill and Vicki Polon

I’d heard about this movie’s status as an under-seen classic but now, after seeing it, I have to believe it is one of the most influential movies of the 1970s. With its quirky, artsy, twenty-something female lead and documentary-style camerawork, it is strongly reminiscent of early-aughts mumblecore, even down to the set design. I can’t imagine Joe Swanberg’s films without Girlfriends, and I’m sure it informed TV shows like Sex & The City, Girls, and Fleabag. Its theme is female friendship, and it follows two roommates, Susan and Annie, whose lives go in different directions when Annie decides to get married and moves out to live with her husband. Meanwhile, Annie has to find a way to cover the rent while also pursuing a career in art photography. Frances Ha clearly borrows from its structure, so much so that I now see Frances Ha as something close to a remake of it, but that just goes to show how universal this story is. In an interview at filmmaker magazine, director Claudia Weill said she wrote it (with screenwriter Vicki Polon) because she didn’t see herself in movies, and apparently Weill had to carry around rolls of the film from studio to studio in order to sell it — just as Susan, a photographer, lugs around her portfolio from gallery to gallery.

Girlfriends is set in late 1970s New York, with the girls living in a convincingly grimy sublet somewhere downtown. They are both trying to make it as artists; Susan is a photographer and Annie is a writer. Annie is conventionally attractive, and in most movies, she would be the leading lady. But Girlfriends focuses on Susan, who has a messier look, with wild curly hair and crooked teeth. Susan is more artistically ambitious, or maybe she’s just more confident. The movie opens with Susan taking a photo of Annie half-asleep in the early morning light; later Annie shares some new writing with Susan, but when Susan critiques it, she crumples and worries that she’s becoming a dilettante. The screenplay gently suggests that one reason Susan turns to marriage is for the validation and security it offers. When Annie leaves, part of Susan’s disappointment is that she felt their friendship was its own kind of commitment. When Annie leaves Susan feels betrayed. She also can’t make the rent.

The movie doesn’t shy away from the financial realities of Susan’s life as she tries to make ends meet. We see her taking on bar mitzvah and wedding gigs to get by, and struggling to find a way to sell her art photography. In one plot thread that I loved, we see Susan running into a friend who is also pursuing photography and who is a little further along in her career. I think a lot of movies would pit these women against each other, but Girlfriends shows the reality, which is that these women are more likely to help each other–and that’s just what they do, sharing career tips and opportunities with each other. It’s a rare cinematic portrayal of a professional friendship between women. Girlfriends is also believable in its depiction of Susan’s romantic life. She meets a guy she likes but he’s a little awkward and she’s reluctant to commit for reasons that are unclear to her. She becomes infatuated with a married man; she takes on a bizarre roommate. So much of her behavior has to do with how lonely she feels after Annie leaves but it takes Susan a while to figure that out.

Melanie Mayron is wonderful as Susan, easily carrying the movie with her unruly wit and charisma. There was something so familiar about her mannerisms and after an IMDB search I realized I knew her from Thirtysomething, where she plays Melissa Steadman — the single, artsy cousin who is a professional photographer. So it’s almost as if Girlfriends shows an early chapter of that character’s life. As it happens, Claudia Weill directed several episodes of Thirtysomething, and went on to have a very prolific career in television after Girlfriends. She made one other feature film after Girlfriends, a romantic comedy called It’s My Turn starring Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas. It’s a big studio film, set in New York City, and Weill apparently had a lot of disagreement with her producer, Ray Stark. In her Filmmaker interview (quoted above), Weill said the experience became abusive and she lost interest in studio filmmaking. I watched It’s My Turn the other night, and while it has its charms, it definitely feels like Weill’s voice got lost. I had the sense that there was a weirder, thornier story hiding inside it.

I don’t want to end this review feeling sorry for Weill’s film career that never fully blossomed. Her TV career has been substantial, with stints at shows like My So-Called Life, Once and Again, and Girls. I have no doubt she was just as influential in her work there as she was with Girlfriends. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if all the cohort of female filmmakers from the 70s, 80s, and 90s are partly what brought about the so-called age of Peak TV, as they were pushed out of movie careers and forced to find work on the small screen. Even if Weill had only ever made Girlfriends, it would be more than enough for the way it shows what it feels like to be to be a young woman navigating her close relationships as she tries to live outside the conventions of marriage and motherhood.

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