Any expectations or preconceived notions I may have had about Mickey and the Bear went out the window the second I saw the opening credits. The film begins in 17-year-old Mickey Peck’s (Camila Morrone, a rising star to keep on your radar) bedroom, as she wakes up to water dripping from her damaged skylight. We follow her through her morning routine: A pensive smoke on the front porch, followed by cooking eggs for her dad, Hank (James Badge Dale); dispensing his pain meds; answering a knock on the door from the sheriff, who informs her Hank’s in the drunk tank; and a trip to bail him out. Nothing about this seems new to Mickey, whose mother died some years earlier. Her father does his thing, and she cleans it up.
This sequence of events would usually signal that we’re in for a somewhat bleak, depressing film. But then we cut to Mickey and Hank in their truck, driving back home. They bicker about her smelling like cigarettes, and she spits back: “You think you smell so fucking awesome?”
With that, the credits blast on-screen, with “Difficult” by Uffie bopping in sharp contrast to the montage of the crumbling landmarks of Anaconda, MT. It’s exhilarating, beautiful, and completely unexpected, the best kind of feeling to have at the start of a new movie. But it’s also a sign of a director who’s in control of her subject, confident in her vision and talent.
That director is 26-year-old Annabelle Attanasio, and Mickey and the Bear is her first feature film. The daughter of TV writer Paul Attanasio, she began her career in Hollywood as an actress, starring as Dorothy Walcott in Cinemax’s The Knick and as Cable McRory in the fraught CBS drama Bull. In between acting jobs, she wrote, directed two shorts, including 2016’s award-winning short, Frankie Keeps Talking, in which she also starred, and Safe Space, about a man who gets inducted into an all-male safe space.
But Attanasio had been quietly working on the idea for Mickey and the Bear since 2014, when she received a grant to conduct research on the veteran community in Anaconda, MT while a student at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. The experience made a deep impression, and she kept on coming back, meeting with families of veterans — specifically women struggling to care for their loved ones.
The result is a nearly perfect movie, heart-wrenching and even violent at times, but also grounded and relatable. Mickey and the Bear tackles issues of addiction and PTSD, as Mickey tries her best to nurture and help Hank. But it’s also a coming-of-age story of a young woman realizing she doesn’t want the life she was born into. She wants more than to graduate from high school only to leap into marriage and babies, as her boyfriend Aron wishes. Nor does she see herself as a forever nursemaid to Hank, who is himself tethered to the ghost of his dead wife. With this movie, Attanasio has created a young woman full of contradictions and contrasts. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Ahead of Mickey and the Bear’s November 13 release, Attanasio told Refinery29 about her “uphill battle” to make a quiet, specific movie about girlhood. (Hot tip: Be shameless!)
Refinery29: In any other movie, the story would be about a male veteran struggling with PTSD and addiction, and his daughter would be a supporting character. What made you decide to shift the focus onto Mickey?
Annabelle Attanasio: “I always had the intention of turning the lens. The stories of women are massively untold, and particularly the bond between girl and dad is something that you don't really see — at least from the girl's perspective. Giving her a rich inner life and perspective, and kind of depicting this movie as a portrait of the dad through his daughter's eyes, that really struck me as something I wanted to do.
It’s even more rare to see stories about teenage girls that take place in rural and remote areas of the country. What made you decide to set this story in Montana?
“Montana has one of the highest populations of veterans per capita in the country, so that was part of my decision making process. But [also] telling the story of a girl in a town that's almost collapsing into her because it's just growing smaller and smaller. I think it's important to tell stories that young women do have paths that don't involve just staying where you grew up and becoming a mother and a wife. That path is beautiful if that's what you want. But there are other options too, and that's not something we see enough because we are in this male gaze, so we are just seeing women on the surface. This is a movie about a woman coming up against many forms of patriarchal systems that are pitted against her, and breaking down those walls and deciding that she's going to craft her own story.”
It’s reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, especially in the way it takes the spectrum of a teenage girl’s concerns extremely seriously, whether it’s dealing with the trauma of a parent’s addiction, or just wanting to look nice on your birthday. You don’t limit Mickey to just one thing.
“Our world likes to put girls into tomboy or girly girl boxes. I love the way Mickey expresses herself through her clothes. She begins the movie with much baggier clothing, but then you see her wearing her mother's two-piece denim patchwork set, and she's experimenting with the way she wants to present herself and how much femininity versus how much masculinity she feels most herself in, and that's ever-changing. Having a character be contradictory is the most interesting thing to me. There's a such a performativity in being a woman, and you’re asked to be sort of constant so that the men in your life can be the ones that ebb and flow. That's just not genuine at all to anyone, and that's completely oppressive.”
As a first-time director and young woman yourself, did you face pushback in terms of pitching this film given the subject matter?
“It was pushing a rock uphill for two years! Most of the financiers you meet are men, — specifically older men and white men — and they looked down on this story as ‘This is small,’ or ‘This is too female centric,’ or ‘It's too risky in terms of the tone.’ You get punished, I think, for wanting to go against the status quo. Not that this movie is saying anything super new. I wanted to tell a story that was really familiar to people. It's not really trying to break down any walls. But still in the financing process, you're looked at as movies about women don't sell.
“What's wonderful about the process of when it does take many years and you don't just get handed everything on a silver platter, is you grow a lot of confidence and a lot of balls in terms of feeling the validity in your work and in your decisions. Certainly now, I feel a lot more secure in my desire to tell stories about complex women. None of us should be ashamed of it.”
Were you at all hesitant in making the jump from actress to director?
“Yeah! Because I am untrained as a director, I didn't go to film school, and my vocabulary is comprised of the movies I've watched and the scripts I've read. I definitely thought I had everything to prove and felt that stupid thing of the imposter syndrome. You walk into these rooms and you feel like, I don't belong here. I will say though, having acting training and acting experience was the best thing that could have come in terms of being a director because I understand how to learn each actor's process and how to then nurture them however I can.”
What were you trying to say about girlhood through this movie?
“I wanted to show that there is strength in the vulnerability and there's vulnerability in the strength. I think Mickey's an amazing representation of that. She's this very stoic, very tough, take no prisoners person, but she's also quite fragile, and loves her dad so much, and has dreams of going to the West Coast. For me, the film is a depiction of the complexity that exists within girlhood and the way young women navigate the world.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.