Picture a woman at work. She’s good at her job, excellent even – in a field that’s still male-dominated – but she knows there’s something more to life than her professional expertise. Sure, she was the first person on Earth to talk to aliens, but is she complete? No. Thoughts of her lost daughter assail her at crucial moments, to the point that all the men she works with (and it is all men in the military tents) think she’s having a breakdown. Worried, the men examine her, drug her, put her to bed, chase her with guns – then finally another man explains to her, in a vision, what to do. It won't save her daughter but it will ensure she gets the guy. This is the plot of Arrival – starring Amy Adams as linguist Dr. Louise Banks, one of those fantasy academics who owns a stunning lakefront house – and the film's up there on all the awards lists. In Banks' final vision, she even wears an evening gown, as if to signal to voters how red-carpet this role really is. There’ll be competition, though, in the form of this season’s other heavy-hitting blockbusters with a female lead who falls to pieces: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has just been widowed in spectacularly violent (and violently spectacular) fashion in Jackie; Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) has been raped in her home in Elle; Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is going to kill herself on air in Christine; oh, and of course, Mia (Emma Stone) has to put up with borderline harassment by a jazz bore in La La Land. Regardless of the considerable merits of individual performances in individual films here, I can’t shake the feeling that what shadows the mainstream critical approval they’ve received is the fact that these shiny-haired women are all suffering beautifully, and specifically, from the burdens of (cis) (straight) (white) (middle-class) (able-bodied) femininity. White femininity is presented as a no-way-out conundrum: the only available position is the Pietà of sacrificial victimhood, which then restores straight white middle-class cis women to the winners of the award for most-suffering. In fact, this awards season’s 'female-led' cinema feels a lot like the totes awks and super-racist women in film lunch at Sundance 2017, at which powerful female players in the film world adopted all those supposedly male behaviours – mansplaining, sealioning, general patronising – to try and shut down the wonder that is Daily Show correspondent and actor Jennifer Williams while she was discussing representation in cinema. This interaction between Williams and Salma Hayek says a lot: “I’m sorry,” Hayek said, jumping in. “Can I ask you a question?” “Yes, ma’am,” Williams answered. “Who are you when you’re not black and you’re not a woman? Who are you and what have you got to give?” Williams took a deep breath. “A lot. But some days, I’m just black, and I’m just a woman,” she said. “Like, it’s not my choice. I know who I am. I know I’m Jessica, and I’m the hottest bitch on the planet I know.”
Women (like men) are capable of having jobs and feelings. Revolutionary.
So are there films that encompass the complexity of what Williams is putting forward – that awareness of oppression and glorious self-belief can go hand in hand? Of course there are: not coincidentally, they focus on women of colour. Lemonade and Hidden Figures (and Tangerine, too) foreground professional women who “got them commas and them decimals”, both economically and higher-mathematically, to quote Beyoncé’s “6 Inch”. Hidden Figures, a film about three black, female mathematicians and engineers working for NASA in the 1960s, has hit $100 million in box-office takings, demonstrating a sizeable appetite for films that tell women's stories. Picture a woman at work. She’s good at her job, excellent even – in a field that's still white male-dominated – but she knows there’s something more to life than her professional expertise. Sure, she’s living alone on a ranch, keeping the horses alive during a bitter Montana winter, but is she complete? A crush on an overworked, heavily in debt young lawyer assails her, so she returns week after week to sit, silently, at the back of her adult-education class at the local high school. When her big romantic gesture doesn’t go across so well, she drives through the night to the town where the lawyer works – then, woo unpitched, drives back on the long, cold road. Sure, she’s so tired and heartbroken her truck drifts slowly off the road into an empty field, but then there she is again, feeding the horses. That would be the Rancher (played by Lily Gladstone, who is of Blackfeet heritage), whose unrequited love is for Liz (Kristen Stewart) in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. As well as flying the flag for casual knitwear as the choice of tired professional women everywhere, Certain Women offers four portraits of women getting on with shit. Sure, they’d like to be listened to better – by their clients, their husbands, their kids, their employers, not to mention their crushes – but they’d also like to be more certain about things, both in the Maria Von Trapp sense of self-confidence and in the less flamboyant sense of being themselves, even if their choices (from cigarettes on the sly to queer desire) don’t conform.
The Rancher’s quiet competence with animals (and vehicles) is the heart of the film – as it is for Clover (Ellie Kendrick) in Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling. Perhaps the survival needs of animals swallow melodrama, but it’s manifestly observable that Clover, like the Rancher, gets on with stuff – milking cows, digging trenches, cleaning blood off the walls – and it’s deeply satisfying to watch. Along the way, she confronts trauma equal to that faced by Louise Banks in Arrival, starting with the death of her brother, but she shows that women (like men) are capable of having jobs and feelings. Revolutionary. Maybe farming is key this year, because Dee Rees’ drama Mudbound, subject of Sundance buzz, sees a white family and a black family, both bearing the scars of WWII, contest the right to farm the same piece of land in the Mississippi Delta. Yes, a film where Mary J. Blige plays the matriarch of a mid-century Southern farming family. Powerful. It’s not just social realism and historical drama boasting all the best female leads right now, though: teen caper Deidra and Laney Rob a Train is Navajo director Sydney Freeland’s second feature and, like Drunktown’s Finest, it focuses on young people with nothing to lose. Here, sisters Deidra and Laney plot a series of goods-train hauls to pay their mother’s bail after she bailed on her zero-hours job. A working-class, mixed-race single mother family getting it done – and injecting some fun into intersectional feminist film as they go.
Crime capers have tended towards male domination – until Alice Lowe got in on the act, with Prevenge, which she wrote, directed and stars in. The British black comedy follows pregnant protagonist Ruth as she goes on a killing spree at the whim of her unborn child. “I’d pitched the film as a female Taxi Driver,” Lowe said, “that element of a maverick, roaming character that is lonely – we don’t think of female characters as having the capacity for that existential angst.” Along with female director Mattie Do’s Lao-language feature Dearest Sister, Prevenge is a blast of feminist horror that offers powerful fantasies of where to shove that suffering. Picture a woman at work. She’s good at her job, excellent even – in a field that's still male-dominated – but she knows there’s something more to life than her professional expertise. Sure, she’s holding a movie camera, on location in communities facing conflict and violence, but is it enough? Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson may be the memoir of a documentary-maker but it sets a new bar for all filmmakers, especially in its depiction of suffering. Instead of the shiny-haired glamour of trauma staged for auteur cinema, there’s tough dignity and respect in the conversation between the cameraperson and her subjects. Whether they’re chopping firewood, baking bread, saving cyanotic babies or collecting witness testimony, Cameraperson’s hard-working women (including the one behind the camera) are my screen heroes this season.