Film & Television

Netflix Features Four Original Films By Women

When HBO launched (to a mere 300 or so subscribers) back in 1972, the first program it aired was Sometimes a Great Notion, a movie that had been in theaters the previous year. The film was followed by a live NHL game. The original concept for the network was that it would be a paid subscription service that would air relatively current movies and live sports events without commercial interruption. It wasn’t until the following decade that HBO began producing original programming, and still another decade later till they began creating the kind of programming that wins awards — from 1992’s The Larry Sanders Show to 1999’s The Sopranos. In 2018, the seventh season of Game of Thrones reached 12 million viewers.

In its 46-year history, HBO achieved what no one could have predicted. It not only reached parity with ABC, CBS, and NBC; it surpassed them in terms of critical acclaim, major awards, and risk-taking innovation.

Right now, we’re living through another television renaissance. Streaming services Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix are churning out original programming at an astounding rate. And, as HBO did decades ago, they are leaving the broadcast networks in the dust. Critical darlings like The Handmaid’s Tale ((Hulu), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon), Orange is the New Black and House of Cards (both Netflix) have swept the Emmy Awards, set higher bars for television quality, and provided work for countless actors, screenwriters, and directors. And that means good news for women behind the camera.

Netflix currently has four new movies by female directors: The Land of Steady Habits, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener; Nappily Ever After, directed by Haifaa al-Mansour; The Kindergarten Teacher, directed by Sara Colangelo; and Private Life, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. I binged them over the weekend, and am happy to report that they’re all worth watching.

The Land of Steady Habits — like Holofcener’s other films (including 2010’s Please Give and 2013’s Enough Said — is fairly quiet and character-driven. Variety recently wrote that Holofcener “is a master at making audiences care about people who are behaving badly.” In this case, the protagonist, Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) has left his wife, Helene (the always electrifying Edie Falco), and son (Thomas Mann). He’s quit his high-powered financial services job and seems confused as to what his next move should be. At various points in the film, he smokes dope (laced with PCP) with a bunch of teens, drunkenly stalks his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, falls into bed with waitresses and salesgirls, as well as a legitimate potential love (Connie Britton), and tries and fails to advise the troubled son of family friends, with tragic results.

Holofcener, who is 58 and attended NYU Film School and Columbia University, has made only six feature films. She attributes this to being “picky” and to the time she’s spent raising her sons as a divorced mom. When asked about Hollywood’s imbalance in funding men and women directors, she is optimistic. “I don’t know the statistics, but it feels like it’s getting better. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to have this career, and I do feel that I came up at the right time, in the ’90s, when there was an audience for smaller movies like the kind I make. The movies have gotten bigger and the theaters have become more scared of releasing different kinds of films. But with all the streaming networks and all the movement towards diversity in all areas of the world, I feel like it has to, and will, change.”

Nappily Ever After seems like a departure for director al-Mansour. Her first feature, Wadjda, shined a light on the everyday repression of women and girls in Saudi Arabia. Her new film, based on a 2009 novel, still has feminist themes. But they are wrapped in a much lighter story that could be called a romantic comedy, except the happy-ever-after is very much on its heroine’s own terms. As al-Mansour describes it, the movie is about “breaking away from the images that society place on women, with their hair or skin color or body type, and learning to embrace our true selves.”

Violet (Sanaa Lathan) is living an enchanted life: she has a successful career, a boyfriend who is about to propose, and perfect hair. The fact that said hair takes immense amounts of money and time to maintain is a price she’s been brought up to accept by her perfectionist mother (the regal Lynn Whitfield). When things don’t go quite the way she’s planned, her hair becomes a metaphor for her own metamorphosis. She goes blonde, then shaves her head, then after several trials and tribulations (some funny, some not), begins to become herself, nappy head and all. Along the way, she befriends the young daughter of a sexy single-dad salon owner. Whether they become a couple or not, they vow to change the world together “one head at a time.”

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