One doesn’t hear the derogatory term “chick flick” much these days, but that’s probably because they don’t really make them anymore. Once, not long ago, there was handwringing about the lack of “good roles” for women, but these days we’re bombarded with discouraging statistics showing that there are hardly any American movies that center on female characters at all. A less discussed reason for this sad trend is the long-standing disinterest in female-centered movies by critics, an apathy that has grown ever more pronounced over the last decade. Cinephilia has never been an exclusively male phenomenon, though (mostly male) critics’ long-standing tendency to focus on “dark,” hairy-chested narratives (father-son films, war stories, gangland sagas, great-man biopics) has become even more pronounced in recent years. As movie tastemaking gradually moved online, film criticism, in all its high and low forms, became ever more a boys’ club. Check out the IMDb top 250 movies list for a fairly good representation of the kinds of aesthetics and thematic content now widely venerated; with The Dark Knight and Fight Club in the top ten at the time of this writing, one can assume that most of them are teenage boys—today’s stealth cultural gatekeepers.
With film chatter essentially a pissing contest, films perceived as milder—i.e., feminine—get left in the dust. Look at the best picture Oscar nominees of the past five years, for example: out of forty-seven movies, there were only five that could be called “women’s pictures”—An Education, The Help, The Kids Are All Right, Philomena, and Precious—and none of them had or have a chance of winning (and only two were directed by women). While there were four other films with female protagonists, their hyper-masculine aesthetics ensured they were non-threatening to male viewers (Black Swan, Gravity, Winter’s Bone, and Zero Dark Thirty) and thus I exclude them from consideration here. The slow death of the “women’s picture” seems to have been an ongoing concerted critical effort—we just don’t take them seriously. It’s difficult to imagine a Terms of Endearment or Out of Africa ever winning the big prize today.
Both of those films are examples of that most degenerated of genres: the female weepie. In the Douglas Sirk entry in his 1968 book The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote, “One big obstacle to an appreciation of his oeuvre is an inbred prejudice to what Raymond Durgnat has called the genre of the female weepies as opposed to the male weepies, particularly the kind from Italy that are hailed as ‘humanist.’” More than forty-five years later, things don’t seem to have changed much, even in elevated critical circles. (Humanist art films from Italy may no longer be the toast of the town, but similarly sanctified works from Iran, Belgium, and, perhaps, Argentina currently take up space on the pedestal.) I recall first becoming acutely aware of this phenomenon in 2005, when there were several expertly crafted, moving American films featuring women in leading roles and concerning such negligible things as human relationships; none of them were taken particularly seriously by the culture at large. And as a result, none gained any serious traction during awards season (women were scarce in that year’s best picture lineup, which included Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich, and woeful winner Crash), but they hold up well today against more serious-minded, staunchly male-centered awards bait.
Few people saw it then and no one’s talking about it now, but 2005’s Prime, a poignant, mature romantic comedy headlined by Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman, is far more observant about human nature and says more about a city’s multicultural makeup than that year’s big Oscar winner, and with humor and grace rather than head-hanging and proselytizing. It’s also got a gently hilarious, rather ingenious, premise: a thirty-seven-year-old professional New Yorker, Rafi (Thurman), enters unexpectedly, and against her better judgment, into a rebound affair with twenty-three-year-old artist David (Bryan Greenberg), who is, coincidentally, the son of her therapist, Lisa (Meryl Streep), to whom she’s been spilling all of her affair’s intimate details. Only Lisa uncovers the truth, and after advisement from her own therapist, decides to keep treating Rafi in order to help her, resulting in much discomfort for Lisa as both a mother and a doctor. This allows for moments of both squirm-inducing comedy (Rafi describing David’s penis to his mother: “So beautiful . . . I just want to knit it a hat”) and surprising emotional complexity, as Lisa is torn between doing what she thinks is right for her patient and what is right for her son and her own family. And shouldn’t those be the same thing? Devoutly Jewish, Lisa wants her son to marry someone of his own faith, not to mention someone in his own general age bracket—and especially not a shiksa goddess with a biological clock ticking at deafening levels. The film exposes Lisa’s inherent hypocrisies and blind spots, yet doesn’t go so far as to call her out as a hypocrite: many of us are guilty of preaching to others what we refuse to give to our own.
The film is concerned with knotty moral dilemmas, yet doles them out with the lightest of touches. Though David is central to the film (and Greenberg is an adorable, if purposely muted, presence), the film gently belongs to Streep and Thurman’s necessarily more thoughtful characters. Younger, who wrote and directed Prime following his testosterone-soaked debut, Boiler Room, fashions here an affable but never simplistic portrait of people gradually coming to know themselves (i.e., the kind of film that’s patted on its head and sent to bed before awards-season). Clearly indebted to Woody Allen, but with a feminine warmth all of its own, Prime functions like a distaff Manhattan. There’s a heightened sense of ethnicity here, though: Judaism isn’t implicit, it’s the point—to Lisa it’s both comfort and a shield. Without its cultural specificity, Prime might have been just another rom-com, albeit one that’s unusually sharp in its craft and concept. The rise and inevitable fall of Rafi and David’s fling, and Lisa’s slow acceptance of her son as an individual—breathtakingly essayed by Streep in probably her most underappreciated performance—all register strongly because Prime feels as though it springs from an authentic milieu.
A handful of similar themes (the difference between our professional and personal faces, the inherent hypocrisies in many of our everyday transactions, the pain of communication within families) turn up in 2005’s lovingly conceived and made Junebug. Director Phil Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan crafted something so delicate that it was bound to be pushed aside by movies that bellow and bluster. Also a key reason for many viewers’ indifference: Junebug, which takes the deceptive form of a meet-the-parents narrative, is decidedly feminine—which is not, and should never be, a synonym for soft. Its protagonist is fish-out-of-water Madeleine, played with nuance by the superb and still sadly underutilized Embeth Davidtz (last seen as Jared Harris’s long-suffering wife on Mad Men); she’s a Chicago art dealer accompanying her beau, George (Alessandro Nivola), to his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she hopes to make nice with an outsider artist whose work she’d like to display in her gallery up north.
Junebug is an ensemble in theory, but it’s dominated by its women, specifically Madeleine and Ashley (Amy Adams, who scored the film’s sole Oscar nomination), the pregnant wife of George’s brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie). Ashley lives at home with her husband’s parents, Peg and Eugene (Celia Weston and Scott Wilson); when we meet her she’s practically bursting with excitement at the prospect of meeting Madeleine, soon to be arriving with George. Garrulous and indefatigably cheerful, Ashley is clearly searching for a kindred spirit, an alternative to the taciturn men that make up the family into which she married. Eugene is submissive and silent, while self-negating Johnny is a bundle of implosive energy, and even George, when he steps across the threshold of his childhood home, seems to instantly regress into a state of quiet stoicism. It’s the women who fuel the narrative, just as they’re the ones who ensure that life moves forward, even, at the climax, in the face of tragedy.
As the film goes on to dramatize, Madeleine’s loyalties are divided between two spaces, one representing her career and the other her potential future family. Yet whichever she prioritizes, the film and Davidtz refuse to judge her. Both worlds come tinged with trauma: eccentric artist David Wark’s violent, racially provocative canvases seem situated as the polar opposite of the initially cheerful interiors of George’s suburban childhood home—but long unspoken fraternal resentments and sadnesses change our perception of the latter. As though to reveal the underlying melancholic spirit of the house itself, Morrison will keep his camera trained on rooms even after they’ve been emptied of people, their voices trailing off in the distance while chairs, couches, tables linger in the afternoon sunlight.
Another film about familial estrangement and emotional reparation in 2005, Curtis Hanson’s In Her Shoes is a far more polished, ultimately generic product, but it’s also radiant and openhearted. Based on a book by Jennifer Weiner and written by Susannah Grant, and headlined by three actresses—Toni Collette, Cameron Diaz, and Shirley MacLaine— with nary a leading male role in sight, the film has a decidedly female point of view (despite the camera’s unceasing interest in the contours of Diaz’s bikini-clad derriere, that is). Novelist Weiner has been outspoken about the double standards that exist in the publishing industry, and she might as well have been talking about the movie world as well when she stated in a 2010 interview: “It’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book.” As a film, In Her Shoes, with its unapologetically bright palette (much of the film takes place in the seemingly unserious milieu of a vividly colored Miami retirement community), makes no claims for itself as cinema with a capital C, yet Hanson’s smooth professionalism and the power of the performers, particularly Collette, help articulate the knottier emotional issues surrounding regret, guilt, and sibling rivalry at its core.
Collette and Diaz initially seem mismatched as Rose and Maggie, a pair of motherless sisters with night-and-day personalities—the former a dowdy, grounded lawyer, the latter an irresponsible party girl—but both actors instantly persuade by conveying reservoirs of long-held resentments, which Hanson captures in swift, elegant strokes. The film is at its best when these two are on-screen together: Rose understandably fed up with Maggie’s childish, shiftless behavior and thoughtless betrayals, and Maggie relatably upset at Rose’s constant lecturing and infantilizing of her sister. The first act climaxes with a genuinely upsetting battle royal between them, and if the film never quite recovers after separating these two characters into different spaces, Hanson at least keeps things moving briskly before their inevitable reconciliation.
In Her Shoes resorts to tidy resolutions and often functions in a broad register (especially once Maggie reunites with her long-lost grandmother, unsentimentally played by MacLaine). But it’s a fallacy that, merely by virtue of its genre, such a film is less valuable than Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane, or Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, concurrent male-oriented weepies about broken families that were taken far more seriously by critics and audiences. In addition to Prime, Junebug, and In Her Shoes, we can add at least four more—Down to the Bone, Nine Lives, North Country, and even The New World—to the list of worthwhile female-powered American films in 2005, few of which gained much traction from award-bestowing bodies or were placed on year-end lists. This was also, incidentally, the year that Batman Begins began our current woeful pop culture cycle, in which darker is inherently better. Next to the glowering, gravel-voiced guy in the rubber suit with daddy issues, resilient and complex women like Rafi and Lisa, Madeleine and Ashley, and Rose and Maggie never had a chance.
Michael Koresky is the staff writer of the Criterion Collection, as well as the co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. His writings have appeared in Film Comment, Cinema Scope, indieWIRE, Moving Image Source, Sight & Sound, and The Village Voice.