Film & Television

For these Female Directors, First Time’s the Charm

I’ve been writing about movies for Women’s Voices for Change for more than ten years. And, for more than ten years, I’ve bemoaned the lack of women directors. 

Women have long made up half the students in prestigious filmmaking programs at universities like UCLA, NYU, and USC. But in any given year, the women whose projects actually get greenlighted are in a distinct minority. That pitiful fraction decreases when you look at films from the biggest studios, with the biggest budgets, and the most aggressive marketing and distribution.

The situation does seem to be improving (although at a snail’s pace). This year, for the first time, there were two women nominated for the Best Director Oscar: Chloé Zhao for her heartbreakingly brilliant Nomadland, and Emerald Fennell for the bold #MeToo cautionary tale Promising Young Woman. And, for only the second time, it was one of these women who walked away with the statuette. In doing so, Chloé Zhao also became the first woman of color and the first Chinese woman to win. 

If you’re willing to do a little hunting, you can find some terrific recent films by women. The following ten titles are available on streaming services or (if you’re very lucky) at local festivals or smaller independent cinemas. In each case, the movie is the director’s first feature film (or almost first; some self-produced or directed as school projects). 

And, each title is “Certified Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes, having earned more than 90 percent positive reviews from critics.


Holler, directed by Nicole Riegel

Hoping a college education will be the ticket out of her depressed Southern Ohio community, young Ruth (Jessica Barden) takes a risky job with a scrap metal crew. Pamela Adlon and Becky Ann Baker round out the cast in this sensitive underdog story. 

Drama, available to rent on Amazon.


I Blame Society, directed by Gillian Wallace Horvat

A struggling young filmmaker (played by Horvat herself, who also wrote the screenplay) realizes that there are surprising similarities between directing a successful movie and committing the perfect murder.

Black comedy/thriller, available to rent on Amazon.


I Carry You With Me, directed by Heidi Ewing

This story of a forbidden but lasting love takes place over decades in Mexico and New York City as a teacher and an aspiring chef try to find a place where they can be together despite society’s disapproval and their own individual hopes and dreams. 

Drama/LGBTQ+, available to stream (in Spanish) on Amazon.


Identifying Features, directed by Fernanda Valadez

A desperate mother (Mercedes Hernández) searches for her son across Mexico after authorities report that he has died trying to cross the border. A powerful and deeply personal essay on the immigrant experience.

Drama, available to rent on Amazon.


Plan B, directed by Natale Morales

An ill-advised first sexual encounter sends teens Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) and Lupe (Victoria Moroles) on a cross-country hunt for a Plan B pill. An entertaining mix of genuine (and often  funny) friendship and a timely message about reproductive rights.

Comedy/Drama/Coming of Age, available on Hulu


Pray Away, directed by Kristine Stolakis

A compassionate — and compelling — exploration of so-called “pray away the gay” conversion therapy. Candid interviews include both former leaders of the movement (who eventually left it) and recovering survivors.

Documentary/LGBTQ+, available on Netflix.


Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, directed by Mariem Pérez Riera

Accomplished Puerto Rican director Riera’s first English-language feature. The film celebrates the life and work of Oscar-winner Rita Moreno, as she beats the odds on stage and screen in an industry too eager to typecast.  

Biography/documentary, available to rent on Amazon


Saint Maud, directed by Rose Glass

This taut and ultimately disturbing story focuses on a devout nurse (Morfydd Clark) whose care of a dying patient (Jennifer Ehle) becomes a deadly obsession to save the woman’s soul. Critics have compared Glass’s intense film to the classic Carrie.

Horror, available on Hulu.


Shiva Baby, directed by Emma Seligman

A recent college grad (Rachel Sennott) attends a Jewish funeral with her disapproving parents, but runs into her ex-girlfriend as well as an older man who happens to be paying her for sex and has arrived with blonde wife and fussy baby in tow. Awkward! 

Ethnic family comedy, available on HBO Max.


Test Pattern, directed by Shatara Michelle Ford

A sexual assault is just the beginning when a young Black woman (Brittany S. Hall) and her white boyfriend are forced to visit multiple hospitals and encounter racial bias and injustice in search of a rape kit and much needed care. 

Drama, available on STARZ or to rent on Amazon.


After these impressive debuts (or “almost debuts”), here’s to larger budgets, broader audiences, and many, many more opportunities for women to tell important stories and share their unique visions, as these promising new directors have.


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