Why You Need To Get Excited About This Fall's Movies

During the summer season of popcorn flicks, we’re often pleasantly surprised to find a movie that gives a woman something to do on screen. Think Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation or Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.

But fall is different. And this fall, in particular, is really different. In the coming months, we’ll be able to check out a whole slew of films that don’t hide their female stars behind men — or men and explosions.

Which is not to say there aren’t promising fall movies that put their talented actresses in wife or girlfriend roles. (See: Katherine Waterston in Jobs; Shailene Woodley in Snowden; Elizabeth Olsen in I Saw The Light — all three biopics about dudes.) Nor does it mean that we won’t get to see actresses kicking ass in major blockbusters — some of which might even feature pyrotechnics. There’s the final installment of The Hunger Games franchise and Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens introduces Daisy Ridley, who stars alongside a supporting cast that includes Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, and Carrie Fisher.
But, of course, fall is really all about the serious. It’s the season of Big Important Dramas, and this year there are, thankfully, a number of female-centric films that grapple with issues you might even call feminist.

That’s no small feat, given Hollywood’s well-documented bias. “Pitching an adult drama today is very difficult,” says Ron Nyswaner, who wrote Freeheld, a drama out October 2 that's based on the true story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a New Jersey detective who fought local government to leave her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), while dying of cancer. “Then, if you put a woman or two women at the center of it, now you have another obstacle. I think people want it to change.”

One of the most eagerly anticipated female-focused films this fall is Carol (November 20). Directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), the film is adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, and stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as women who engage in an affair during the 1950s. According to screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who worked for 15 years to get the movie off the ground, the's film focus on a lesbian relationship was less of a hinderance than the idea of men in supporting roles. “In the early days of development, there were lots of, I don’t know if I’d call them lesbian films, but films such as Bound — films which featured two women who had sex,” she says. “There were a lot of those movies being made, so I don’t really know if we had that much trouble with the lesbianism, [but there was] a lot of trouble with female-driven projects. I’m not sure, in reading about other people’s experiences with recent films, that that’s changed very much over the years.” The evolving political climate and the fact that talents such as Blanchett, Mara, and Haynes have signed up helped enormously.
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Photo: Courtesy of Lucasfilm.
Another literary adaptation came to the screen much more quickly. Emma Donoghue adapted her 2010 novel Room for a film directed by Lenny Abrahamson, in theaters October 16. The book unfolds from the perspective of a 5 year-old-boy, Jack, who has spent his entire life held captive by his mother's rapist and kidnapper. In writing the screenplay, Donoghue says she was able to put a renewed focus on the mother, called Ma, who is played by Brie Larson. The book was published well before the three victims of the Cleveland kidnapping were released in 2013, and before Netflix's series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt proved it was possible to take a humorous look at abduction. (Donoghue loves that show, by the way.)

“I think it’s really important to tell these stories in a way that doesn’t focus on the sex slave idea,” Donoghue says. “To me, the storyline of Room isn’t really the important thing. The important thing is the perspective [it’s told from]. I didn’t want to do yet another story about the woman in peril."

Larson’s Ma is a “really heroic role,” Donoghue adds. “I think she creates an archetype of female power and particularly a motherly power in this film, even though a lot of times she’s having to wait and be afraid and be cautious.”

Suffragette (October 23) tackles a more traditional form of heroism, focusing on early 20th century British activists. The film centers on a composite character, Maud (Carey Mulligan), to tell the story of women’s sacrifices on the road to winning the right to vote (which came in full in 1928). Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan were part of the largely female team that developed the movie for six years. “The point that we were ready to make it was also perhaps the point at which the world was interested in hearing it,” Gavron says.

The movie features an impressive cast, including Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep, who has a small but vital role. “It’s not about love and relationships. It’s a human story, and I think that it can connect with male and female, and can connect with issues wider than gender and equality all over the world,” Gavron says. “We’re dealing with women who are engaged in a battle, and we’re not looking at them as girlfriends and sidekicks to men.”

“We’re dealing with women who are engaged in a battle, and we’re not looking at them as girlfriends and sidekicks to men.”

Sarah Gavron
Not that there’s anything wrong with romance, mind you. Brooklyn (November 6), adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel, features an intriguing love triangle, but never strays from its heroine, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a girl who leaves her home in Ireland for Brooklyn in the 1950s. For director John Crowley, telling an immigration story from the perspective of a young woman seemed like a new way to look at an old tale. “It felt like a very fresh take on a story that, if you’re Irish, you’re quite familiar with,” he explains. “Actually, the number of narratives of emigration are very, very few. In particular, the number of narratives about a young woman making this journey — well, I don’t know of any.”

Then there is About Ray (September 18), a multigenerational story about a transgender teen (Elle Fanning), her mother (Naomi Watts), and her grandmother (Susan Sarandon). Our Brand Is Crisis (October 30) puts Sandra Bullock in a role that was originally meant for George Clooney. Joy (December 25) remains a fairly mysterious project, but features Jennifer Lawrence in what looks like another gonzo David O. Russell yarn, this time about the inventor of the Miracle Mop.

If you’re wondering where are the women of color in all this, well, we are too. The fact that none of the films we’ve cited focus on women of color speaks volumes about Hollywood’s continued failure to recognize diversity. Unfortunately, this fall is shaping up to be another overwhelmingly white lineup.

Carol looks like a likely contender for the Academy Awards, especially given Blanchett’s track record. But Nagy also acknowledges that for her film to pave the way for more female-centric films, it needs to be financially successful. “That’s the measure of it,” she says. “It isn’t really how many awards something might win or how much positive press it gets. So, fingers crossed, people go out to see Carol.”
Editor's Note: Refinery29 is turning 10! To celebrate our milestone birthday, we're throwing a fabulous party and we're calling it 29Rooms. The immersive, interactive, and socially-driven event takes place in Brooklyn during New York Fashion Week, from September 10 – 12, and will feature — yes! — 29 rooms, each designed to reflect a different theme. Film fans will want to check out the Drive-In Cinema space, a desert drive-in-inspired movie theater in which guests will take a seat on old turquoise car seats and enjoy quick, brilliant bits of cinema, all under a vast desert sky. See you there!
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