While feminist achievements in popular culture are not always easy to come by, the last few months have brought more than a few heartening examples. This year’s Golden Globes, for instance, had a plethora of feminist moments. Perhaps more surprisingly, even the Super Bowl featured anti-domestic-violence ads, an anti-racism ad starring Mindy Kaling and a spot devoted to raising girls’ self-esteem. And excitingly, this year’s Sundance festival, which just wrapped up on Sunday, is being lauded as particularly strong in its focus on women’s films.
The Hollywood Reporter, in a post titled “At Sundance 2015, Ladies First,” noted that screening schedules were “packed with female-driven works—movies directed by or about women, featuring the kind of plum roles we rarely see actresses enjoying in multiplex fare.” In an interview with the presidents of Sony Pictures Classics, Tom Bernard says, “It’s the Year of Women” in films, while his co-president, Michael Barker, argues that at the festival there is generally “a motif in the finest films…and I think at this festival the motif is feminism.”
In fact, this year 32 percent of the movies screened at Sundance were directed by women, which is far higher than the average 4.4 percent of woman-directed big box office movies of the last decade.
There were so many promising feminist-friendly films screened at Sundance it was difficult to pare down the list of movies to watch out for. But, for the sake of brevity, here are the five films that stand out as most groundbreaking and important from a feminist view:
The Hunting Ground
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the same team that made The Invisible War, which exposed the epidemic of sexual assault in the military and won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2012, have turned their focus to sexual assault on college campuses in their latest documentary.
Discussed at length on Democracy Now on January 28, the film reveals how universities and colleges across the nation suffer from extremely high rates of sexual violence yet fail to protect students and punish perpetrators.
Describing why she and Dick decided to make the film, Ziering notes, “Every time we showed Invisible War on campuses, someone came up to us and said, ‘Actually, this happened to me here, and there’s a lot of analogies between what you’re pointing out going on in the military going on at my school.'” As in that film, it is revealed in The Hunting Ground that perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders. Ziering explained that the title of the film was chosen to reflect that trend, saying, “We wanted to…show that [campus rape is] actually a calculated, premeditated act,” which is carried out by a small percentage of males.
Importantly, the film not only documents the enormous problem of sexual assault on campuses, but also focuses on women who are organizing around the country to eradicate campus rape culture and bring about legislative change. Further, it reveals the tendency for campuses to turn a blind eye, blame the victim and fail to expel or otherwise take action against perpetrators. As Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman related, “You come to understand universities all too often want to protect their brand more than the victim, that they don’t want to report these assaults. They don’t want to expel people. And yet, when it comes to what is called ‘honor crimes,’ like plagiarism, they expel scores of people.”
Hot Girls Wanted
Another documentary, produced by Rashida Jones (of Parks and Recreation), this film focuses on pornography in Florida, following several 18- and 19-year-old women who, new to the city, are looking for immediate ways to earn money as they attempt to escape the bad situations that led them to Miami.
Dubbed “a blunt look at amateur pornography and the lives it casually destroys,” the NY Daily News claims the film offers “a glimpse of the sad journeys of several young women who are deceived, exploited and cast away until their lives are casually ruined.”
Hot Girls Wanted aims to reveal the exploitative practices of the amateur porn industry, though, notably, it sounds like the film does not offer a blanket condemnation of porn, but rather lasers in on amateur porn in particular and its exploitation of young runaways.
The film has already been picked up by Netflix and is slated to premiere later this year.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Picturers Classics, says this film marks the birth of a major, major filmmaker: director Marielle Heller.
An adaptaion of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel by the same name, the film has been dubbed “the rare American crowd-pleaser to bring us right inside a young woman’s sexual awakening: the lust and self-loathing, the longing and the narcissism, but also the all-consuming sensory pull of it.”
Offering a positive take on female sexuality, the film features newcomer Bel Powley alongside Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård.
The closing night selection at Sundance, Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as Elle, a lesbian professor and poet whose pregnant granddaughter comes to her for help. The cuss-loving Elle, whose partner of 38 years has recently died, embarks on a mission to help her financially underprivileged granddaughter.
Also featuring Marcia Gay Harden and Laverne Cox, the film was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics.
Writer and director Paul Weitz admits, “I just wanted to see a movie where (Lily Tomlin) was in every scene…so I wrote it.” As a lover of the fabulous actor who played the unforgettable Violet in the Jane Fonda-produced 9 to 5, I look forward to seeing Tomlin cuss a blue streak and bring on the laughs.
Like Grandma and Hot Girls Wanted, this film focuses on the margins of society, and those who are marginalized. As noted in The Verge, “In a festival full of coming-of-age dramas and straightforward documentaries, [Tangerine is] a minor miracle: a good long look at the margins.”
Centered around transgender prostitutes working in a not-so-glamourous part of Hollwyood, Tangerine was shot using an iPhone 5S.
Though some have described it as suffering from “over-the-top comedy,” the focus on two trans women, Alexandra and Sin-Dee, is also said to honor the sisterhood and comraderie of the characters, showing how, despite their tough, proud exteriors, their daily lives are brimming with the dangers our gender- and sex-normative society propagates.
Considering the rundown above, we’re apt to agree with The Hollywood Reporter: “Sundance, whatever its annoyances, does sometimes make good on its mission of nudging talented people from the margins into the spotlight.”
Photo via Shutterstock
Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.