In Tara Westover’s bestselling 2018 memoir, Educated, a wildly intelligent young woman finds herself stuck working in her family’s junkyard, unable to leave her isolated Idaho town even as she longs to go to college. Public school is forbidden by her fundamentalist Mormon father, so she is homeschooled with her siblings and forced to scrap metal in illegal and unsafe conditions. Westover’s gripping story of escape captivated readers across the country, and I found myself thinking of it as I watched Nicole Riegel’s directorial debut, Holler, which concerns a young woman facing similar challenges.
Robin Wright’s directorial debut, Land, is interesting for the way it seems to be in conversation with several recent films that explore the urge to isolate in the wake of trauma. Land follows Edee, played by Wright, a middle-aged professional-seeming woman who abandons civilization to live off the grid in Wyoming. She finds a spartan hunting cabin to rent, and stockpiles it with canned goods and survival gear. Her goal is to learn to live off the land by hunting, fishing, and growing her own food. It’s a lofty ambition for someone who appears to have very little experience in the wild, but she’s determined, going so far as to hire someone to drive her car away so that she doesn’t have the option to leave except by her own two feet.
Joyce at 34 (1972) Directed by Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill
A friend recommended this documentary to me after I wrote about Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends in my monthly newsletter. Joyce at 34 is a short film, a little over a half-hour, about director Joyce Chopra’s transition to new motherhood as she tries to balance her professional and home life. She began filming when she was eight months pregnant at the suggestion of a friend, who said she was in a unique position to make a documentary about her life. Chopra at first thought the movie would be about her mother, and how her relationship with her mother might change after having a baby, but the documentary turned into an inter-generational story about how difficult it is for women to balance work and childcare. Chopra is about the same age as my parents, and her struggle to continue working after having a baby is all too familiar to women in my late Gen X/early millennial cohort. Even as Chopra is shown to have a supportive partner with a flexible work schedule, the burden of childcare falls on her and her mother. I left this movie feeling as if nothing has really changed for women, and nothing will until there is some kind of universal childcare in place, although this isn’t something that anyone in the documentary suggests. It’s not prescriptive or overtly political in its tone. Instead, its power comes in its straightforward depiction of a woman who continues to work after having a baby.
For a movie about the impending birth of a baby, Together Together is oddly lifeless. Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith, it tells the story of a friendship between a middle-aged single man, Matt, and his surrogate, Anna, a young woman who has agreed to bear his child for a fee. The film opens with Matt (Ed Helms) interviewing Anna (Patti Harrison) about her qualifications for surrogacy, and we quickly learn that the main requirement is a previous successful pregnancy. Matt is confused because Anna has no children of her own and in an awkward exchange, Anna reveals that she had a child in college but gave it up for adoption. This event, we later find out, was so disruptive that it completely threw Anna’s life off course and left her estranged from her family. She is pursuing surrogacy so that she can pay for college and finally finish her degree. Matt’s reasons for single parenthood are less clear, except that he seems to be a profoundly lonely person. Once, he was in a long-term relationship, but it didn’t work out–he never explains why, and Anna never explains why she decided to bear a child in college and give it up for adoption, although they haltingly ask each other these questions. It’s a script full of half-asked, half-answered questions, one that left me feeling very frustrated and sometimes bored.
I will forever associate this movie with my vaccine convalescence, that brief period after your booster shot when it feels like you’re coming down with the flu. Yesterday morning, I got my second Moderna vaccine and I felt fine until around dinnertime. Then I got hit by a wave of fatigue that reminded me of the first trimester of pregnancy. I knew I had to get in a supine position immediately so I retired to my bed with the ipad. I was too tired to even read. I chose By the Sea mainly because I knew my husband had no interest in ever watching it. It got fairly withering reviews when it came out in 2015, and I had pretty much written it off, too, until a couple of weeks ago, when some scenes from it were included in the first episode of the Criterion Channel’s miniseries Women Make Film. I was dazzled by the location and the glamour in those images. I wanted to see more. How bad could it possibly be with Jolie and Pitt starring?
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.
Never Gonna Snow Again (2020) Directors: Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert
This haunting, meditative movie got under my skin even as I wasn’t totally sure what it was trying to say, and sometimes felt that the filmmakers were also unsure. More often than not, scenes seemed to exist to establish a certain mood rather than to advance a story. But I didn’t care. The images were strange and beautiful, tinged with magic and sci-fi, and posing questions about life after death, the nature of healing, and climate change. Written and directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and her long-time DP Michal Englert, the film was Poland’s entry for the Oscars for Best Foreign Picture. The story centers on a masseuse, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a Ukranian immigrant whose work takes him to a gated suburb on the outskirts of a large city. Zhenia goes from house to house carrying his folding massage table and getting an intimate look into the houses that all look the same from the outside, but whose occupants each carry their own specific pain. In its simplest telling, it’s a story about upper-middle class suburban life, with Zhenia as the all-seeing narrator who draws connections between the families’ shared spiritual malaise. But beneath that structure is a darker and more mysterious tale about humanity’s relationship to a dying planet.
Shiva Baby looks and sounds like a comedy but it’s actually a horror movie about being in your twenties, with a surprising vein of emotion. The film centers on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college senior whose Gender Studies major makes her parents anxious as it doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific career. They also don’t like — or even totally believe — that Danielle is bisexual. When Danielle joins her parents for the shiva of a family friend, they coach her on what to say about her future prospects and to be on the lookout for potential job opportunities. It’s funny and awkward and soul-crushing for Danielle, who already feels guilty for her lack of ambition. Danielle also has a secret: she’s a sugar baby, a young woman who is paid for her sexual favors. She tells her parents, who support her financially, that she earns extra money by babysitting; she tells her sugar daddy that she needs the money to pay for college. When her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), turns out to be a guest at the shiva, Danielle realizes that the lies she’s been telling everyone are about to be exposed. To make things even more complicated, her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), is also in attendance.
E.T. (1982) Director: Steven Spielburg Writer: Melissa Mathieson
Last night I watched E.T. with my two children, aged 3 and 8, for family movie night. I watched this movie a lot as a kid, but I don’t think I ever saw it in the theater. Instead I had a VHS tape of it, recorded from when it was on TV. There are certain scenes from E.T. that are like my own childhood memories — like in the still above, when Gertie dresses E.T. in her clothes. And there’s another scene when E.T. hides in the closet full of stuffed animals, because he’s scared. I loved that. The set design in this movie is impressively detailed and gives the sense of what it’s like to be in a house full of kids. Everything is messy but the objects are also very beloved and special. The house also helps to tell the story: you get the sense that everything is a bit more chaotic than normal because the parents have just separated. The mother is barely holding it together as she works full time and parents three children, and her housekeeping is a place where she has decided to let things go. That’s how E.T. manages to live there without her noticing.
All the Light in the Sky (2013) Director: Joe Swanberg Writers: Jane Adams & Joe Swanberg
I watched this mellow movie a few weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s a showcase for Jane Adams, an actor who often seems like the most fully realized character in any scene, even when she’s on for just a minute or two. I think she first caught my eye in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where she plays the beleaguered wife of the protagonist’s friend. She only has a couple lines but she suggests an entire life and marriage. She’s one of those character actors who, once you become aware of her, you begin to see everywhere. She’s been working steadily since the late 1980s, when she was a student at Juilliard. Looking at her IMDB, it looks like she supplemented a theater career with bit parts in film and TV, appearing in shows like Family Ties and Frasier. I associate her most with indie directors, especially Joe Swanberg, who directed this movie and is a frequent collaborator.