An empowering Sundance sees lots of fierce women, on the march and in movies

First Published      Last Updated Jan 30 2017 09:38 am

Park City • A woman who turns to murder to get what she wants. A mother so demoralized by her existence that she starts behaving like a pit bull. A female millennial who calls out her Tinder dates on their idiocy.

If Hollywood has a woman problem, you wouldn't know it from the Sundance Film Festival, wrapping up Sunday.

Last year's diverse festival lineup hinted at a shift in the stories we would see on-screen. Then came best-picture contenders featuring characters of color: "Moonlight," "Fences," "Hidden Figures" and "Lion."

Does that mean we'll soon be overwhelmed by movies about fierce women? Maybe not immediately. The industry has been slow to change, with a serious dearth of female leads and even fewer female filmmakers, while Natalie Portman, Patricia Arquette and Jennifer Lawrence openly discuss the continued disparity in pay.

But for every "Ghostbusters" debacle, there are glimmers of hope, the most recent being the success of "Hidden Figures," a movie about black female mathematicians that has raked in $85 million so far, not to mention three Oscar nominations. Clearly there's a mainstream market for stories about women.

And at Sundance this year, those movies are everywhere — and they're good, with protagonists who aren't hemmed in by gendered stereotypes. Such films have debuted against the backdrop of women's marches around the world, including one in Park City, where locals rallied alongside celebrities, including Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron and John Legend.

Renowned union organizer Dolores Huerta, 86, took the stage during the rally to remind those in the audience of the incredible power of being a woman — that every person at that rally and beyond came from a female body. Incidentally, motherhood was one of the festival's dominant themes, and the moms on-screen weren't the one-dimensional nurturers or nags we're used to seeing.

The documentary "Motherland," for example, explores life at a public hospital's maternity ward in Manila, where impoverished women crowd together while moaning through contractions, sometimes lying three to a bed. Becoming a mother might be natural for these women, most of whom shun family planning, but that doesn't make it easy.

One baby-faced new mom despairs when her own mother pays her a visit. "Please don't make me cry," she pleads. "I'm already having a difficult time."

The challenges of motherhood are even starker in "Bitch," a movie about a stay-at-home mom (Marianna Palka, also the writer and director) who is so burdened by taking care of her four children and her deadbeat, philandering husband that she has a psychotic break and starts acting like a feral dog.

After warning her selfish other half (Jason Ritter) that she's on the verge of losing it, she retreats to the family's basement and starts barking, snarling and rolling around in her own feces.

On a more realistic note, the musical dramedy "Band Aid" shines a light on a stubbornly taboo topic: the lonely agony and shame of having a miscarriage. Like Palka, the movie's star, Zoe Lister-Jones, wrote and directed, and she gives a moving performance as a woman struggling to bounce back a year after losing her first pregnancy. She and her husband, who fight constantly, find momentary solace by chain-smoking joints, though it's ultimately another kind of creation — writing and performing angry songs together — that helps.

While "Bitch" will have niche appeal, "Band Aid," which co-stars Adam Pally and Fred Armisen, has real mainstream potential. That matters because the crew on the set of the film was all-female. If stories about women are an anomaly, then movies with women working behind the scenes are even rarer, which makes "Band Aid" the most remote of outliers.

A couple of nights before the premiere of that movie, Geena Davis, representing her inclusion-focused Bentonville Film Festival, hosted a panel discussion with "Casual" star Michaela Watkins, former "Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams and "Transparent" creator Jill Soloway.

Soloway wasn't discouraged by the prospect of a Donald Trump era; she believes the new administration will galvanize women to band together and demand more. Maybe that will mean more movies for and about women, not to mention richer depictions.

Soloway was in town to promote "I Love Dick," her Amazon.com series about a married filmmaker (Kathryn Hahn) who becomes infatuated with a combative intellectual (Kevin Bacon). The show flips the male gaze on its head, and viewers get to see overwhelming desire through the eyes of its female lead. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Actresses don't often get to show those kinds of messy, unpretty emotions. Most female characters fit into neat boxes: the perfect girlfriend, the insufferable wife, the idealized savior, the caring mom.

"Can we stop using 'mom' as a character description?" Watkins wondered during the panel.

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