Women have bodies. Women make jokes. Women appreciate observational comedy. Women are funny. God damn it. Then why do I still feel compelled to spell all of that out? Why do we of the female persuasion have to continually point this out (or harp on it, if you’re nasty)? Well, because many men still can’t see beyond the taking up too much space on the subway and the-world-is-my-toilet mentality of male existence, let alone recognize that women can be funny. Not all men clearly, but the sort that are plastered in print and found around the interwebs saying things like that this year’s Golden Globes had “too much estrogen!” and denigrating “the feminization of society.” Without going into a feminist diatribe (or reaching for my copy of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto), suffice it to write that many still consider female filmmakers a genre unto themselves, in some ways apart from the rest of the filmmaking community, and that this is a problem we as a society, whether we have uteri or not, should fix.
A few weeks ago, director Lexi Alexander took to her blog and wrote a call to arms for Hollywood to hire more female directors (which subsequently made its rounds around the Indiewire network and elsewhere), writing, “For future generations of girls, who may get the crazy idea that they too have stories to tell, it should become our core value to stop handing out wildcard status based on gender.” During last week’s “Women in Film” panel at the Sundance Film Festival, panel members tackled the issue with aplomb, with director Rory Kennedy stating that “we live in a sexist world and Hollywood is at the heart of it.” Unfortunately, the statistics at Sundance and in the larger filmmaking community paint a bleak picture for future female filmmakers, with only the documentary field resembling anything close to gender equality behind the lens (although there may be hope springing out of the Sundance Film Labs). So where does this leave the funny female filmmaker with her jokes about unclean panties, travails of uncomfortable threesomes and stunted womanhood? Well, in spite of the above commentary, two films (and the two filmmakers behind them) found a home and shined at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (albeit both being allocated to the forward-thinking NEXT section, and suffering from an onslaught of comparisons to “Girls” and Lena Dunham).
“Farts are funny,” Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) repeats back to Ken (Scott Adsit) after a screening of her filmmaking class’s short. With the above comment acting as a mini-review, Shirin is both taken aback and genuinely pleased by Ken’s words, with him being both her employer and stoned friend of a friend. After months of teaching a class of 6 year-old boys, the end-of-semester result is a fart-laden, zombie short. In the flusters of her own issues (including a recent break-up), this moment of levity gives her some welcome perspective and the audiences of Appropriate Behavior one of many good laughs. Far from a cookie-cutter protagonist, Shirin struggles with being a tall, broad-shouldered Persian woman living in Brooklyn (keep an eye out for Park Slope location shots), who also likes both men and women, though leaning towards the latter. Trying to live up to her parents’ unrealistic expectations (settling down with a man, babies, etc.) but also live her own life (not following a well-trodden career path, enjoying both hot dogs and tacos, etc.), Shirin navigates through some pretty tricky romantic waters while trying to keep her head afloat enough to afford Brooklyn rent.
Upon meeting a handsome woman named Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) on a Brownstone stoop towards the end of New Year’s Eve, Shirin explains that despite her girly clothes and her last significant other being male, she swings both ways. In a flailing flirt move, Shirin specifies that she likes women who look masculine but also look like ladies (hint hint, nudge nudge). Normally, this would not be the best approach to seducing an admittedly involved lesbian, but thanks to the New Year’s countdown and Shirin’s adorkable quirkiness, it evolves from a drunken kiss into a new, defining relationship for the both of them, acting both as a challenge and cushion to Shirin’s still uncertain identity. Maxine tries to be supportive of Shirin’s closeted dynamic with her conservative family (who manage to overlook the logistics of their shared one-bedroom apartment), but finally just can’t take being Shirin’s token white friend/roommate anymore and the two break up (though not fall out of love, particularly). Left scrambling and leaving with the couple’s dildo in hand, Shirin opens herself up to a few unfulfilling trysts, including a pick-up resulting in an awkward threesome attempt (involving a brunette spinner and a ginger man) and a thwarted try at making Maxine jealous with a disoriented, mustachioed hipster.
An unconventional romantic dramedy, Appropriate Behavior manages to hit both authentic notes and more than a few laughs. Director-writer-star Akhavan’s previous work includes the Kickstarter-funded series “The Slope” (originally dubbed “The Slope: Superficial Homophobic Lesbians” and aimed to be a “gay Scenes from a Marriage“) and the short “Nose Job” (with the tagline of “Nothing says ‘I love you’ like rhinoplasty”). After Appropriate Behavior’s Sundance premiere, Akhavan has been dubbed the next Lena Dunham by the likes of Variety and the New York Post (funnily enough) and “a talent to watch” by Indiewire.
“I’m not a book… Not yet,” Donna (Jenny Slate) says to romantic interest Max (Jake Lacy) while stuck in a cardboard moving box. One of the milder jokes in Obvious Child, it strikes to the core of the protagonist’s absurdist front. Donna is a well-educated, well-meaning twenty-something who works at a bookstore to pay the rent by day and attempts to be a stand-up comedienne by night, something that even in the 21st century is quite a feat (refer to the yearly hubbub around SNL casting). Sounding like a typical modern Brooklynite? Well, her stand-up routine borders on performance art, she falls a bit for a prep (Business major, docksiders, etc.), and the topic of abortion comes up. So she may be bordering on a new type of typical heroine (meandering, uncertain, awkwardly sexually active), but she is darn funny while at it.
The film opens on Donna onstage during an open mic comedy night at a local Brooklyn bar, with her topic of choice being unclean panties. This may be too “scatologically preoccupied” for some, but for living, breathing women, it is refreshing and reaffirming for someone to talk about down-there bits without parodying the “not feeling fresh?” ad or “mother’s advice” to make sure you wear clean undies, in case of emergency, and without crossing into full-on gross-out territory (love you, Sarah Silverman, but…). Instead, Donna projects to a back-of-the-bar audience that lady bits secrete and that underwear does not remain pristine throughout the day. Oh look, a girl is being frank about things that happen in the vicinity of her vagina. Shocking, oh so shocking, but more importantly (and less hypocritically), oh so funny…
Things get even funnier as she meets a type-A looking boy after another open mic night (with her set being less standup and more venting over a recent dumping, which happened in that bar’s bathroom coincidentally enough). They drink and are merry and leave the bar and… Well, before the two get to the “…”, another part of nature calls and they both need to take a wizz. Rather than running to a 24/7 diner or gas station restroom (we’ve all been there, am I right?), Donna squats down and Max opens his fly in an alley way (we all haven’t been there, I do hope?). The not-so-romantic moment turns even less so as Max breaks wind, ahem, farts inadvertently in Donna’s face and she bursts out laughing. How’s that for a meet-cute? The two still wind up back at his place and have some drunken rompy pompy, with Donna’s unclean panties (motif?) ending up on Max’s pillow.
Now, boys and girls, what happens sometimes (though not all times) when you have blurry sex? Not blurry in a fast, furious and feisty way but blurry in a “remember that there was a condom present, but forget what it was used for” way? Babies. Well, not babies, but you can become pregnant, which could lead to babies. Similar to everything else that happens to Donna’s body, she takes this unplanned development in stride and ultimately maneuvers the whole ordeal into her standup act. Rather than being too ashamed or chastising herself too harshly, Donna flails a bit at the prospect of a child and telling one-night Max (who continues to come a-courting), but knows that at the end of the day (or the legal few-week waiting period) it’s her body and her decision.
A structurally conventional romantic comedy (meet-cute, conflict, resolution) with unconventional elements (bathroom humor, pregnancy before love, abortion discussion), the Kickstarter-funded Obvious Child was picked up quicker than you could say “soiled shorts” by A24, in spite of being dubbed “an abortion rom-com” and the possibility of pro-choice stigma. With its frank discussion of female bodily functions and a balanced commentary on the shackles of modern twentysomething womanhood (neuroses, immaturity and all), the film is so much more than its third act abortion-themed twist. Whether you’re a cinematic romantic sentimentalist or not, the “Frankly, my dear” ending should melt your heart. With Obvious Child marking her first feature, writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s previous work includes the original short of the same name, the short Chunk (about an overweight teen forced to attend a summer fat camp), and collaborating on another short Beach.
So where does that leave the struggles of female filmmakers both in Hollywood and on the indie circuit? Two examples of festival success won’t determine all that much in the scheme of things, but it does show that audiences and critics appreciate and applaud female narrative filmmakers, or at least when they follow a certain formula. Thematically, both Desiree Akhavan and Gillian Robespierre identify an attraction to balanced authenticity (comedy and drama, pretty and unpretty, physicality and wit, etc.) as part of their creative process, with Akhavan explaining to AskEllen.com that “life is always slipping back and forth between comedic farce and tragic melodrama, so I appreciate it when films get the balance right and make it feel truthful,” and with Robespierre telling Women and Hollywood that she’s “attracted to telling stories about people who feel and do real things in the real world.” So, if you’re a female narrative filmmaker seeking success at Sundance, take the romantic comedy, inject some unconventional authenticity (Let your freak flag fly, ladies!) and hit up Kickstarter and/or some open-minded backers. Not that this is a new plan (see Lake Bell’s In A World), but it’s a recently found true one that depends on new blood and new insight to keep working. Post-Sundance, both filmmakers are continuing on this path by starting work on similarly female-driven, dramedy projects; with Akhavan is “developing a comedic television series about the women in an inpatient rehabilitation center for eating disorders” and Robespierre is working on “a comedy about divorce.”