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Women Directors 2018: Reviews

Angels Wear White | Vivian Qu
Feature | In Mandarin | Written by Vivan Qu
Released May 4 | KimStim | Streaming on Amazon Prime

Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White follows the ebb and flow of a Chinese coastal town with the telling simplicity of neorealism, an approach that emphasizes the surreal sight of an absurdly tall statue of Marilyn Monroe in her iconic subway grate pose. Qu and cinematographer Benoît Dervaux keep the camera at ground level as Mia (Wen Qi) marvels at towering high heels held on by delicate straps, the toenails painted a reflective red. She’s interrupted by giggling schoolgirls taking selfies, and encounters the twelve-year-olds later at the glossy Warmness Motel, where a suspicious Mia checks in their companion, a prominent local official. [more]

Becoming Astrid | Pernille Fischer Christensen
Feature | In Swedish and Danish | Written by Pernille Fischer Christensen and Kim Fupz Aakeson
Released November 23 | Music Box Films

This warm-hearted biography of Astrid Lindgren is less about the making-of-a-writer than the formation of the woman who would become the prolific writer of beloved children’s books. Director Pernille Fischer Christensen sprinkles Becoming Astrid with moments of young Astrid Ericsson (Alba August) mesmerizing children with her tales, demonstrating her early promise. But Christensen roots Astrid’s transformation from impetuous teenager to beloved author in her experience as an unwed mother in conservative 1920s Sweden. [more]

The Boy Downstairs | Sophie Brooks
Debut Feature | Written by Sophie Brooks
Released February 16 | FilmRise

Sophie Brooks doesn’t try to reinvent the romantic comedy with The Boy Downstairs, she just takes it out for a little spin around Brooklyn, where her gawky would-be artists stumble into love. The writer/director’s first feature is warmly affectionate and maddeningly vague, with half-formed characters, limp plotting, and performances of captivating delicacy, especially from Zosia Mamet as a novelist guided by uncertainty. [more]

Can You Ever Forgive Me? | Marielle Heller
Feature | Written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
Based on Lee Israel’s 2008 autobiography
Released October 19 | Fox Searchlight

The real Lee Israel, the celebrity profiler turned forger who died in 2014, was a more boastful figure than the sad-sack recluse Melissa McCarthy plays in Marielle Heller’s sympathetic biopic, especially when methodically detailing her brief, prolific criminal spree in the early 1990s. Israel explained in interviews that she wrote biographies of women with large personalities, such as Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen, because she considered herself equally interesting. She even quoted a letter she had faked and credited to Dorothy Parker for the title of her 2008 autobiography, Can You Ever Forgive Me? [more]

Freak Show | Trudie Styler
Debut Feature | Written by Beth Rigazio and Patrick J. Clifton
Based on James St. James’s 2007 novel
Released January 12 | IFC Films | Streaming on Hulu

A fleeting reference to The Crucible sums up the cultural moment Trudie Styler captures in her bitterly funny and warmly empathetic first feature, an adaptation of James St. James’s young adult novel. Lynette (Abigail Breslin), the WASP queen bee in an affluent and conservative high school, so embraces her role as a puritanical enforcer that she imbues it with righteous fury. Never mind that Arthur Miller rendered members of the witch hunt mob as fearful and ignorant conformists, squelching dissent with violence. [more]

Good Manners | Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra
Feature | In Brazilian Portuguese | Written by Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra
Released July 27 | Distrib Films US

Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s contemporary fairy tale is a heady blend of heightened reality and grounded fantasy set in a São Paulo envisioned as an orderly steel-and-glass fortress surrounded by the colorful chaos of improvised neighborhoods. High and low are clearly delineated, and when Clara (Isabél Zuaa) arrives at the condo tower where a demanding, pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano) is interviewing potential nannies, her unease is expressed in twitchy discomfort. The visual style (color-saturated modern gothic) and tone of empathic fatalism can be described as Guillermo del Toro meets Jacques Demy, but Rojas and Dutra have created a singular fable where anxiety and fear are directed inward, even when the danger is all too real. [more]

Half the Picture | Amy Adrion
Debut Documentary | Released June 8 | Gravitas Ventures

Many of the directors featured in Half the Picture (including Gina Prince-Bythewood, Karyn Kusama, Patricia Riggen, and Jamie Babbit) reinvigorated stale genres with their debut films, and Amy Adrion follows suit in her first documentary. Employing a simple talking-head format, Adrion and editor Kate Hackett weave women’s voices into a flowing conversation that needs no narrator. By eschewing explanatory voiceover, Adrion keeps each woman’s perspective distinct while examining gender discrimination. It’s experiential revelation as advocacy filmmaking, an incisive and inviting example of the personal as political. [more]

Jinn | Nijla Mu’min
Debut Feature | Written by Nijla Mu’min
Released November 16 | Orion Classics

There’s nothing preachy about Jinn, even though Nijla Mu’min’s elegant debut feature is about a teenager coming to terms with her mother’s newly embraced religion. Summer (Zoe Renee) is in limbo during the spring of her senior year, awaiting word from CalArts (Mu’min’s alma mater) about admission into its dance program. She’s a confident, goal-oriented high school student who is accustomed to certainty, and it’s during these tenuous months that her mother Jade (Simone Missick) guides the skeptical Summer toward Islam. [more]

Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story | Kate McIntyre Clere and Mick McIntyre
Documentary | Released January 19 | Abramorama and Indievillage

Documentarians Kate McIntyre Clere and Mick McIntyre take fellow Australians to task for their treatment of kangaroos, the free-roaming indigenous animals that elicit loathing as much as wonderment. The adorable marsupials may serve as the go-to local symbol for Australian companies, but they’re hunted down in numbers that would shock outsiders who believe the distinctive creatures are protected, not sourced for meat and leather. [more]

Living in the Future’s Past | Susan Kucera
Documentary | Released October 5 | Vision Films and Trafalgar Releasing

Nothing makes the point of this stay-calm-and-carry-on ecology documentary better than a power outage during a thunderstorm, a brief blip in our comfortable lives that triggers deep fears and a reminder that nature can’t be tamed. The big ideas swirling through Living in the Future’s Past all boil down to a simple premise: Our response to climate change is predicated on environmental ambivalence, especially the cycle of panic and complacency that inhibits thoughtful long-term planning. [more]

Never Steady, Never Still | Kathleen Hepburn
Debut Feature | Written by Kathleen Hepburn
Released June 22 | Level Films

The austere beauty of Never Steady, Never Still reflects the stripped-down lives of Kathleen Hepburn’s self-contained characters, who require little and ask for less. Judy (Shirley Henderson) has early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and only allows herself to express regret and disappointment at a mobility support group (where everyone else is elderly). Living in peaceful isolation on Stuart Lake in rural British Columbia, there are few options for therapy, physical or otherwise. [more]

Oh Lucy! | Atsuko Hirayanagi
Debut Feature | Written by Atsuko Hirayanagi and Boris Frumin
Based on her 2014 short film
Released March 2 | Film Movement | Streaming on Hulu

The wistful longing of discontented Japanese salarymen in films like Shall We Dance? is absent from the bracingly funny Oh Lucy! Setsuko Kawashima (Shinobu Terajima), an office lady tugging at her restrictive white collar, bubbles with anger and resentment. She barely masks contempt for a retiring co-worker who fawns over their male boss, stuffing the sweets she’s proffered into a desk drawer already overflowing with them. Younger women greet the supervisor’s paternalistic pronouncements with graceful nods and demure smiles, but Setsuko’s head jerk and pained rictus express a bilious disdain. [more]

Pin Cushion | Deborah Haywood
Debut Feature | Written by Deborah Haywood
Released July 20 | Cleopatra Entertainment

Deborah Haywood’s formidable first feature is at once a ruthless dissection of cruelty, capturing the relentless torment of outcasts for the pleasure of self-styled superiors, and a warm evocation of an interdependent mother-daughter bond. Pin Cushion has the visual cues of comedy, with its candy-colored kitsch and exaggerated signifiers of eccentricity and snobbery, but at heart, it’s a tragedy of naïveté. [more]

The Revival | Jennifer Gerber
Debut Feature | Written by Samuel Brett Williams | Based on his 2010 play
Released January 19 | Breaking Glass Pictures

At first glance, Pastor Eli (David Rysdahl) seems the picture of calm piety at the pulpit; behind him is wood paneling polished to a patina of soft reflection and the gentle jewel tones of stained glass set alight by the morning sun. But Eli’s sermon, delivered with soothing insistence, falls on stony ground, even though the small congregation wants to believe in him. Jennifer Gerber illustrates their worshipful focus by positioning Eli at the center of her widescreen frame, an effect that can make a modest potluck look like the Last Supper. [more]

Stella’s Last Weekend | Polly Draper
Feature | Written by Polly Draper
Released October 12 | Paladin

Polly Draper achieves a delicate balance in Stella’s Last Weekend, blending real-life family dynamics with a fictional narrative to create an achingly funny exploration of loss. This showcase for her sons Nat and Alex Wolff is a far cry from The Naked Brothers Band, the boisterous Nickelodeon series she created, which co-starred their father, pianist/composer Michael Wolff. The precocious musicians went on to play numerous awkward teens, and now reunite as bantering brothers who have both fallen for Violet (Paulina Singer). [more]

The Swan | Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir
Debut Feature | In Icelandic | Written by Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir
Based on Guðbergur Bergsson’s 1991 novel
Released August 10 | Synergetic Distribution

Anchored by a remarkable child’s performance, The Swan is a sensitive example of an overlooked element in coming-of-age films: awakening to the outside world. Nine-year-old Sól (Gríma Valsdóttir) is an insular girl, her imagination fueled by the craggy shoreline and unceasing sea that surround her small Icelandic coastal community. She’s angry and resentful at being sent away for the summer, a banishment presented in Guðbergur Bergsson’s 1991 novel as the punishment for shoplifting. [more]

Yadvi: The Dignified Princess | Jodyi Singh
Debut Feature | Written by Gauri Singh
Released May 25 | RVP Productions

There’s more enthusiasm than skill on display in Yadvi, a leaden biopic made by sisters Jyoti and Gauri Singh to honor their grandmother Rajmata Yadhuvansh Kumari. They use family history to illustrate the decline of Indian royalty during the twentieth century, when princely states that had been internally autonomous during the British Raj were absorbed into the new democracy. Yadvi was an adoring daughter of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, one of the world’s wealthiest men and a towering figure in Indian politics and society. [more]