A woman in her 50s loses her mother and her job and finds herself completely adrift. A controlling career woman decides to guarantee her legacy by writing her obituary before she dies. An elderly woman wants to reconstruct her failing memories and reconnect to her dead husband.
These are roles in new films played by Michelle Pfeiffer ("Where Is Kyra?"), Shirley MacLaine ("The Last Word") and Lois Smith ("Marjorie Prime").
While they may not sound like typical film protagonists, especially in an American culture obsessed with youth, these characters provided stand-out performances at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival wrapping up Sunday. Not only are they women, but they are older women, dealing with issues film isn't usually interested in chronicling.
Darci Picoult — the screenwriter for "Where Is Kyra?" — had two motivations in developing her lead character played by Pfeiffer, starting with "what it means when you're over 50 as a woman and you lose your job."
She knew a number of "talented, brilliant" women who lost their jobs during the recession and couldn't find work. "How do you hold onto your self-worth?" she wondered. "How do you navigate in a world where you may not be recognized as hire-able? It starts to play on your ability to survive."
This is especially problematic in a marketplace like New York City, the film's locale. "There's such a huge divide between those that have and those that have not, and if you've had and then you don't have, how do you do it?" she asked.
Ironically, just a month after the film finished shooting last December, The New York Times ran a cover story titled, "Over 50, Female, and Jobless Even as Others Return to Work."
Picoult says her second motivation was an image problem she feels many women face: "I think as you get older, it's almost like you become invisible, and I wanted to bring that into the light." Andrew Dosunmu, the film's director, adds, "We as a society are immune to the struggles of the elderly, the disenfranchised, those without status, wealth, and position. We tend to ignore their plights as we move about our lives."
Pfeiffer, 58, brought valuable insights about aging to the project, says Picoult. "I loved working with her. She's a remarkable actress, and she's also extremely smart."
"The Last Word" is Stuart Ross Fink's first screenplay. He has worked in advertising for years, and, "I guess I just decided I wanted to write something longer than 30 seconds," he says, with a laugh. Fink was fascinated by the idea that some obituaries are pre-written and filed at newspapers, waiting for their subjects to die. He started thinking, "Who would be the type of person who would want to have their obituary written while they were still alive?" and came up with a woman "looking back on her life and thinking about all the battles as a woman she had to face, how much harder it was for her in her generation to become a successful businesswoman . . . a controlling, dominating personality, forceful and smart . . . wanting to shape her legacy."
Fink sent the screenplay to director Mark Pellington, whom he knew from advertising work, and both immediately thought of MacLaine, 82, to play Harriet. Fink even sent MacLaine a letter describing what she and her films have meant to him through the years. Whether or not that did the trick, MacLaine signed on, and then they found Amanda Seyfried to play Anne, the young woman MacLaine hires to pen the obituary.
The third part of the mix is Brenda, played by AnnJewel Lee Dixon, a young African American girl they "adopt" after they decide that an essential element of a great obituary is "touching the life of someone unexpected," as Fink puts it.
Pellington says creating the film was "very much a team collaboration," with MacLaine and Seyfried actively helping to shape their characters. "What I discovered," he says, "was that it's really about family. The three women are all trying to fill in an emotional gap in their lives, and it's through the interaction and love that's accrued between the three that the heart of the film exists."
"The Last Word" is a comedy, "but it's got a deceptive emotional power," Pellington adds. "The laughs allow you to open your heart and understand the characters."
"Marjorie Prime" is set sometime in the future when artificial intelligence has invented primes. Actor Jon Hamm, who plays Walter, the film's chief prime, defines one as "a blank slate that is fed memories and stories shaped by the teller." In the film, Marjorie, played by Smith, has a prime that represents her dead husband, Walter, when he was in his 40s. Marjorie, now in her 80s, is losing some of her memories, and conversing with Walter prime helps her recapture them, except their memories are not always the same, and Marjorie wants to alter others. Marjorie's daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and son-in-law, Jon (Tim Robbins), add their own memories to the mix.
Director/screenwriter Michael Almereyda adapted the film from a play by Jordan Harrison, which longtime friend Smith, performed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and brought to him. Almereyda moved the setting from a senior care facility to Marjorie's home on the beach at Montauk on Long Island. "The ocean embodies memory and time; we swim in it and drown in it," he says. "You can't bring the ocean to the stage, but film can do that."
Almereyda also felt it was much better to set the story in Marjorie's home because, "the memories and physical artifacts that surrounded their lives are present to the people there." The past and present are intertwined. "The women in the story relate across generations, and the relationships shift across time," he says.
Smith, 86, says she was intrigued by the character of Marjorie, who becomes a prime in the film, because that gave her two different people to play. Marjorie's memories — "the ones she has, the ones she wants and the ones that are gone" — offered rich territory for exploration, and Marjorie Prime is "another character with a different reality and background." Smith says she is happy to see scripts that have rich roles for older women: "It's such a gift for me to be able to keep doing what I love at my age."
The ocean, the passing years and seasons, and the seamless flow of memories make "Marjorie Prime" feel very fluid. The film has already won the festival's Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, an annual award for a Sundance film that depicts science or technology or features a scientist, researcher or mathematician as a major character.
Whether or not this focus on older women is really a trend, Picoult is excited about the possibility. "There need to be scripts for older women," she says. "There needs to be a voice that really shows women in all of their glory and brilliance and difficulties and that life continues — we're all struggling, we're all trying to get through, we're all celebrating, we're all human beings working to make our lives as full and rich as possible. As we grow, our stories continue to evolve: 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80."
There are still chances to see these three films as the Sundance Film Festival nears the end of its 2017 run:
"Where Is Kyra?" • Saturday, 6 p.m., at the Library Center Theatre in Park City; and Sunday, 12:30 p.m., at the Rose Wagner Center in Salt Lake City.
"The Last Word" • Saturday, 9 p.m., at the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City; and Sunday, 1 p.m., at Sundance Mountain Resort.
"Marjorie Prime" • Saturday, 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, 10:30 a.m., both screenings at the Prospector Square Theatre in Park City.