In the Films of Sundance 2020, Women Took Charge

     January 31, 2020

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Some years at the Sundance Film Festival, a narrative can begin to form around the films making their premiere in snowy Park City. Sometimes the lineup is full of movies about cults. Sometimes it’s full of movies about an adult caring for an elderly parent. But there was something a bit different about the Sundance 2020 movies, which by and large saw female characters taking charge of their own lives in various ways. Not only was this narrative prevalent in a number of the films premiering at Sundance this year, but it’s also probably not a coincidence that 46% of the films in this year’s lineup were directed by women.

The aptly named Promising Young Woman made one of the biggest splashes, as writer/director Emerald Fennell’s feature debut finds Carey Mulligan playing a young woman who lives a double life following a traumatic event. Details of the plot are best kept secret until you’ve seen the movie, but this is as potent a film about rape culture as I’ve ever seen, and it is absolutely constructed to challenge social norms and stoke discussion. And Beasts of the Southern Wild writer/director Benh Zeitlin returned with Wendy, a radical recontextualization of the Peter Pan story as told through the eyes of Wendy Darling. This new point of view provides a fascinating perspective on the story, and how Peter’s unwillingness to grow up is maybe not the best of ideas.

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A still from Miss Americana by Lana Wilson, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Even the documentaries section found women taking charge, as the highly anticipated Taylor Swift Netflix documentary Miss Americana chronicles the pop star’s evolution from apolitical “good girl” to outspoken feminist. We watch as Swift deals with blowback from the Kanye West debacle and disappointing release of her album Reputation, and along the way comes to decide that it’s time to finally make her political opinions known. It’s not a simple Democrat/Republican issue, as Swift comes at her 2018 backing of two Democratic candidates in Tennessee from the standpoint of a feminist who feels passionate about womens and LGBTQ rights. She gets candid about overcoming her own misogyny, resulting in a fascinating and inspiring watch.

The much-discussed documentary On the Record gives a voice to women who have publicly accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault and misconduct, in particular Drew Dixon.

The Netflix documentary Crip Camp also finds a woman taking a political stand, in this case Judy Heumann. This individual has spent nearly her entire adult life fighting for the rights of the disabled, encountering road block after road block, only to persevere. If it weren’t for her persistence and inspiration of other likeminded individuals, we may never have gotten the government to enforce and enact accessibility laws that dare to allow disabled individuals to access and make use of places like movie theaters and public bathrooms—things that should have been a given decades ago.

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Image via Sundance Institute

Speaking of activists, Julie Taymor’s epic The Glorias chronicles the entirety of Gloria Steinem’s life thus far, using a brilliant framing device to allow an older and more experienced version of Steinem to converse with her younger self. This device drives home the idea that becoming a feminist is sometimes a long and winding path full of continual education, and it’s striking to see how Steinem handled harassment and resistance at different times of her life, as portrayed by Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore.

But women also took charge in more subtle ways too. The wonderfully strange Shirley Jackson biopic Shirley finds Elisabeth Moss delivering a stunning performance of the mentally ill and maligned horror author. She’s at times abused and loved by her husband, but still finds ways to shine her confident and wholly unique light through the darkness. And The Nest, a chamber piece about a couple who moves to London, finds Carrie Coon struggling to avoid suffocation by her financially irresponsible husband, played by Jude Law. Coon brings a quiet intensity to the role, and while the film has a tone of misery throughout, it’s still exciting to watch Coon’s character finally call out Law’s for what he really is.

Even quieter, but no less impactful, there’s Yeri Han in writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s meticulously crafted Minari. The drama follows a Korean-born family that moves from California to Arkansas so the patriarch (played by Steven Yeun, also excellent) can fulfill the American dream of creating and running his own farm. But from the get-go, his wife Monica is vocal about how this move will negatively impact the family. A feature-long fight over what’s best for their family ensues, and Yeri delivers a truly terrific performance here.

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Image via Sundance

The Sundance lineup also featured films about women in perilous situations who nonetheless do their best to maintain agency. A24’s Zola, which is based on a series of tweets, finds a sometimes-dancer being taken on a downright insane road trip alongside a sex worker. Stuck in a terrible situation, Zola takes charge and refuses to let herself be used without getting something from it. And writer/director Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always follows a pair of teen girls who travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to seek medical attention after an unintended pregnancy.

There was also the somber The Assistant, which finds recent Emmy-winning Ozark actress Julia Garner playing an assistant to a faceless, abusive movie producer boss. The film follows a “life in a day” narrative as Garner’s character is forced to run interference on calls from the boss’ wife and cart around young, beautiful aspiring actresses to hotels unknown. Garner turns in a subtle yet impactful performance that underlines the difficulty of her situation. Even a comedy like Palm Springs gave its female character agency and the freedom to be complicated, and Cristin Milioti was more than game.

There are countless other female-centric films that played at Sundance this year, but as you can see it was truly striking to see so many in which women not only played a central role, but took charge of their own lives. And in a year in which the blockbusters, too, reflect this sort of femininity—from Marvel’s Black Widow to Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman 1984—2020 could turn out to be a banner year for complex female representation in film. Here’s hoping the Sundance Film Festival was a sign of things to come.

For all of Collider’s Sundance 2020 coverage thus far, click here.

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