Varying discourses of love and loss form much of this chapter of the female-directed movies you not only ought to know, but should have seen already. And there’s a breakthrough performance of an actress who would later win an Oscar.
Frozen River (2008) – Courtney Hunt — Steve Schweighofer @banjoonthecrag
Courtney Hunt’s brilliantly simple writing and direction of this indie labor of love gave us of one of the best films of its decade. The border spanning Akwesasne reserve is the setting for her human smuggling drama that not only shines a non-judgmental light on the issue at hand, but also on the plight and living conditions of First Nations/Native Americans living in this autonomous region that recognizes its own sovereignty over that of the US or Canada. Every winter, the St Lawrence River freezes over and provides a frozen bridge that is used to smuggle everything from drugs and cigarettes to, in the case of Hunt’s story, desperate illegal immigrants attempting to pass from one side of the border to the other. Hunt perfectly conveys the tension one would expect in such an endeavor and manages to add some harrowing layers to each occurrence, none more so than a scene where a duffel bag, suspected of containing explosives, is left out on the frozen river and we subsequently discover it contains the infant child of the Pakistani refugees making the crossing. And this is not even the climatic event that allows for the full reveal of the film’s themes of sacrifice and redemption. Melissa Leo should have won the Oscar for her portrayal of Ray Eddy, a mother who pursues the answer for her families comfort and security – a new double-wide trailer – and she is more than ably supported by the late Misty Upham in a heartbreaking performance as Lila Littlewolf, also a mother, who is at odds with both the white mans’ law and her own tribe. In 97 short minutes, Courtney Hunt obliterates cultural and racial boundaries without once being political, while at the same time providing us with a thrilling story set in the dark corner of our own backyard where nobody ever goes.
Tiny Furniture (2010) – Lena Dunham — Robin Write
Before the HBO bawdy, breakthrough comedy Girls, Lena Dunham wrote, directed and starred in the feature film Tiny Furniture. In an ever-so-similar ballpark to the successful TV show, Dunham plays Aura, who arrives back at her family home from her college having been dumped by the guy she was supposedly going to marry, thus now stuck in a bit of a rut. Figuring out the state of your life at a crossroads is an important thing to focus on, and can be pretty enlightening given film space. Dunham has created something more than interesting enough, keeping light on the drama and humor, while allowing her characters to speak elaborately and observantly. Though there are authentically funny moments, as well as those were you really feel for Aura, Dunham never goes for the throat with emotions or giggles. She is a compelling screen presence, carrying plenty of charm, vulnerability, and performs witty, dry comedy rather efficiently. There are times here we get little whiffs of the kind of social, anxious commentary we know of Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen (to name just two), though not quite in their league of course, they are both very enviable comparisons indeed for what is a well-rounded, intriguing satire on life’s little bumps.
Luck by Chance (2009) – Zoya Akhtar — Asif Khan @KHAN2705
Zoya Akhtar is an Indian filmmaker and writer who made her directorial debut with this acclaimed 2009 feature about an actor’s journey to become a movie star in Bollywood. All of her three films (including the acclaimed Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and the recent Dil Dhadakne Do) are ensemble pieces. Unlike other mainstream Bollywood filmmakers, Akhtar champions storytelling of this variety rather than simple boy-meets-girl love stories that the industry is known for. Akhtar comes from a hugely talented family. Her father, brother, mother and stepmother are either actors, writers, directors or poets, lyricists and singers. Luck by Chance works both as a love letter to the Indian film industry as well as a serious-minded/subtle satire. Akhtar pokes fun at working of the industry effectively and keenly. There is an immense understanding of the subject as well as the film’s story that comes with Akhtar’s experience as well as her observant eye. At the center of this film are two main characters whose personal ambitions, individual paths and distinct understanding as well as consequences provides for the films main conflicts. Packed with good performances (Konkana Sen Sharma for life), impressionable variety of supporting turns and uncountable Bollywood cameos, Luck By Chance is about the huge film industry where stars are made overnight at the expense of other true gems. Bittersweet, deftly handled with layers and layers of nuances, Luck by Chance is surely one of the best films to come out from India about its own industry.
The Milk of Sorrow (2009) – Claudia Llosa — Asif Khan @KHAN2705
Claudia Llosa’s 2009 sophomore feature is a Peruvian film that looks back at the harsh and damaging recent history of the country’s abuse against women. It went on to win Golden Bear and FIPRESCI awards at the Berlin International Film Festical and was nominated for best foreign language Oscar, first for a film from Peru. The impact of its storytelling was clear then. The Milk of Sorrow isn’t a perfect film but it makes up for an impactful experience. Peru’s very real past and the film’s magical realism filled narrative makes up for an unforgettable experience. A film both a vivid projection of what it represents and a bit lost in the attempt. Llosa feels a responsibility to address the sexual violence that was committed against women by the army during a 12-year period in the 80’s and early 90’s. Based on the book “Entre Prójimos” which recounts number of testimonials by women who were raped, the film uses a folk belief to tell a sociological story of how violence has far more reach than the very people directly affected. The central character in the film is suffering from a rare and mysterious illness which is transmitted through the breast milk of pregnant women who were raped. Her life is shrouded by hopelessness, confusion and extreme fear. A tragic existence. The Milk of Sorrow is slow-paced and a little oblique, likely to turn off certain viewers. It is nevertheless filled with beautiful imagery and tells a haunting story of society’s deeply harmful tendencies. Other notable film by Claudia Llosa is her debut film Madeinusa.
Declaration of War (2011) – Valérie Donzelli — Robin Write
In no way an adaptation of the Shakespeare play (although there is a fragile love story here), Declaration of War begins the tale of Juliette (director Valérie Donzelli) and Roméo (Jérémie Elkaïm) in the flourishes of early romance – kissing in public, riding bikes, a bottom slap, the care-free excitement of new love. With the eventual responsibilities of a new baby son, comes the tensions that test a relationship. It’s a convincing, observant piece of film-making to set the pace. What is to come, and the bulk of the film, is the knowledge they have to come to terms with that their baby has a brain tumor. In a vivid, emotive scene, Juliette impulsively starts running down endless hospital corridors, and it seems a somehow appropriate way to vent the anguish. The first act suffocates us with the couple trying to figure out what is wrong with their baby. Early scenes in particular as the camera close to eyes waiting for news, a hand rubbing the tension of the neck, almost dragging us right into the turmoil. Having both written the script, the acting by Donzelli and Elkaïm is sterling, allowing the anxiety and heartache of parenthood to show on their faces as though the performers themselves were actually suffering. Donzelli in her film-making adds some deft touches too. In one scene a concerned consultant wanting to make an immediate call briefly picks up the toy baby phone by accident. There’s some acute dialogue between the couple, not intending to criticize one another, all the while trying to remain focused and calm. There is one terrific exchange between the parents as they wait for their baby’s operation, they fret what will happen to their son. In turn they say they are afraid after the op he will be blind or deaf or mute, and it becomes a spontaneous game to alleviate the stress – they laugh as they ask what if their son becomes a dwarf or queer or black – or a right-wing nutcase? In a time of unimaginable worry and wonder, this can only be sheer pain-relieving amusement, and natural human responses. In a film that, although presses a serious, enduring subject, tries hard not to be too bleak, but rather bring home some joy or faith.
First published August 2015.