This is one in a series of reviews from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival focused on films directed by women; you can find my other Sundance 2021 reviews here.
Despite their divergent genres and tones, and at-times uneven delivery, these three features stood out for the ways they grappled with difficult questions about how we find our way when we’re haunted by grief or fear, how to come back from trauma, and how to remember and fight for those who are lost.
While these weren’t the strongest films to show at Sundance this year—and all their protagonists are white women, which gets to be, frankly, exhausting—Land, Mayday and The World to Come do offer an intriguing insight into directions we can see women-led features heading now and in the future. On the surface, a film about leaving civilization, a feminist dystopia, and a lesbian period drama couldn’t be more different. But, familiar characters emerge from each: strong women who persevere in environments indifferent or even hostile to their desires and needs.
Directed by Robin Wright. In theaters as of Feb. 12.
Robin Wright’s directorial feature debut Land showcases Wright’s strengths as an actor, her thoughtfulness as a director, and, in its narrative, the still-contested relationship between humanity and the wilderness. While Wright did not initially intend to star in her own film, the circumstances which caused her to do so (having to do in part with finances and in part with scheduling) feel like an act of serendipity. You can sense her ownership over the film and over her character, Edee, a woman grieving a loss so profound she determines to give up on civilization and move to a remote cabin in the Rocky Mountains alone.
Land is a measured film with a well-worn plot, and yet it still harbors some beautiful moments of mourning, crisis and uplift as Edee struggles to find meaning in her life against the backdrop of a landscape that cares very little whether she lives or dies. I appreciated that a presumed romance never materializes and that Edee’s early mistakes in the mountains seem to emerge out of her own apathy and dejection rather than outright incompetence. She’s capable of surviving; she just doesn’t know if she wants to, yet.
Land confirms that Wright herself is also more than capable of directing a feature—but, next time, I’d be eager to see her try her hand at a story with a few more layers.
Directed by Karen Cinorre. This film does not yet have distribution.
Even though the ending of Mayday did not quite satisfy all the questions I had percolating as I watched this enjoyably strange, somewhat experimental, feminist fever-dream of a film, impressions of it lingered with me long after the credits rolled. If Alice in Wonderland were adapted as a war film and all the characters were sirens waiting on the shores of a beach to avenge their mistreatment at the hands of men, it might come close to Mayday’s combination of calculated absurdism and philosophical aspirations.
After being assaulted by her boss during a blackout, a power surge guides Ana (Grace Van Patten) into a mysterious world where she’s recruited into a nebulous war by a band of women warriors who lure male soldiers to their deaths. When Ana explains that she’s never fought before, Marsha (Mia Goth), the group’s mercurial leader, tells her, “You’ve been in a war your whole life. You just didn’t know it.”
Mayday makes its feminism explicit, and yet some of the ways characters free themselves from patriarchal oppression feel more like revenge than justice—and it’s not always clear whose side we’re supposed to be on.
Mayday is a smart film with ambitious intentions that gets slightly muddled along the way. Well-acted and with haunting cinematography, what the film lacks in narrative consistency it makes up for in myriad small ways—including its ultimate takeaway: that catharsis can replace rage when we learn to rescue ourselves.
The World to Come
Directed by Mona Fastvold. In theaters as of Feb. 12.
In order to enjoy The World to Come, you need to approach it not as a lesbian romance but as a period drama about the hardships of 19th century American settler life: isolation, inclement weather and the unrelenting patriarchal machinery that grinds everyone to dust in its wake. The film is, in fact, framed as a lesbian romance and centers on a romantic relationship between two women, but I promise that if you watch the film looking forward to the romance, you will be disappointed.
The problem isn’t that Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby)—who meet in a small settlement in upstate New York in the 1850s shortly after Abigail loses her young daughter to diphtheria—don’t have chemistry. In fact, the two women have a palpable magnetism between them, their joy in each other’s presence shining brightly in many artfully crafted and lovingly shot scenes of them together. The trouble is that Abigail and Tallie’s love story ends just about as we expect it will as soon as their husbands begin to grow wary of the eagerness and intimacy of their wives’ friendship.
As a period drama, though, The World to Come does some arresting work depicting the desolation of trying to make a home for yourself when your heart isn’t in it, while meditating on the price we pay for misbegotten hope. At one point, Abigail, whose diary entries provide a narrative frame for the film, asks Tallie if she thinks “there’s a cage that could work to our benefit?” Are they like songbirds who might find joy in captivity together? Seeming to know from the start how their story will end, Tallie cannot tell Abigail yes.
The freedom to love one another openly isn’t possible under either their husbands’ control or the perpetually overcast skies, but only in the gilded glow of dreams and memory.
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