Female-directed films are still a rarity in Hollywood. It’s a statement that induces feelings of rage in any woman working in the industry or the women who yearn to see their lives depicted via a female gaze on screen. But while opportunities for these directors might be rare, good things are happening. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman smashed box office records and critics’ expectations upon release last weekend, and Sofia Coppola became only the second woman to win the Best Director award for The Beguiled at the Cannes Film Festival. And the few who are doing their best to shatter glass ceilings are creating incredible work that deserves to be seen by everyone. There are (thankfully) many more than four to watch, but on the back of that powerful Wonder Woman wave, here are the films I’ll be starting with.
Monster directed by Patty Jenkins (2003)
Patty Jenkins’ 2003 biopic about the ill-fated life of serial killer Aileen Wuornos (an unrecognisable, Academy Award-winning Charlize Theron) never shied away from the fact that Wuornos committed her crimes but it did what so many portrayals failed to do: look at her as a human being, who also greatly suffered in life. Jenkins forgoes a soap-like plot and delves into mental illness and the treatment those who need help the most but are unable to get it. She also added in the star-crossed love story with Christina Ricci (who is phenomenal in the role) who gave Wuornos’ life some warmth when she was so worn down. It’s raw and wrenching.
Breathe directed by Melanie Laurent (2014)
Insightful teen dramas don’t get much more beautiful than Inglourious Bastard star Melanie Laurent’s second directing feature. Breathe, Mélanie Laurent’s feature film about two warring teenage girls Sarah (Lou de Laâge) and Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is a story told with careful tenderness. Seventeen-year-old Charlie is immediately taken with the more outgoing Sarah and the two form a close bond. But slowly, the relationship starts to turn; jealousy and possessiveness take centre stage and things turn ominous when Sarah tires of Charlie and seeks a new friend. It’s a striking, coming-of-age tale of friendship and victimhood, the malicious games young women can play and what happens when things turn sour at a pivotal crossroads in life.
The Virgin Suicides directed by Sofia Coppola (1999)
The story centres around the five Lisbon sisters – Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux and Cecilia – who are portrayed as figures of unattainable desire by our narrators; a group of neighbourhood boys who recount the lives of the girls (and their obsession with them) 20 years after the girls’ deaths. It is a book not so much about suicide – although as the title suggests the five teenage Lisbon sisters do kill themselves – but about unrequited love and loss of wasted youth. For a title that sounds so grim, Coppola visually brings a vivid light and breezy haze to the screen, despite the often dark and troubled lives of the girls. The film was based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel of the same name and is one of the few examples I can think of where the adaptation enhances the source material. It’s chilling, haunting but not without beauty. It is still Coppola’s best work.
American Honey directed by Andrea Arnold (2016)
This film reached sleeper hit status until it started making noise on the film festival circuit and now it has the critics talking. A poignant exploration of lost youth, the film follows American teenager Star (played by enthralling newcomer Sasha Lane) as she embarks on a journey of self-awakening after running away from her rundown Oklahoma town. She meets unlikely companions in a Walmart carpark, and so begins her time on the road. This couldn’t be further from the American Dream; the roads are worn, the destinations rundown and the setting is, if anything, very bleak. It captivates thanks to director Andrea Arnold’s deft touch – she can make the grimmest of scenes look like a work of art – and standout performances from Lane and Shia LaBouf (in his most sympathetic role to date). It’s a reckless, raw and beautiful movie – a moving ode to the magical fragility of youth.