Monday, January 30, 2023

Why Female-Directed Films, “She Said” & “Women Talking,” Matter This Awards Season

Though most of the talk surrounding this year’s awards season has been centered around Steven Spielberg’s personal passion project “The Fabelmans,” the indie smash hit sensation “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” and even Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” there’s one story that’s been criminally under-discussed: the fact that 2022 is a banner year for female filmmakers. Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun” – an emotionally wrenching retrospective work about a daughter’s relationship with her father and the issues that are only apparent when analyzing our childhood memories as adults – is this year’s indie darling. At the same time, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical war epic “The Woman King” resurrected “swords-and-sandals” sagas (once one of the Oscars’ favorite genres) and recontextualized these classic myths with revolutionary representation. Chinonye Chukwu directed one of the season’s most powerful performances in the tender “Till,” which showcased Ms. Danielle Deadwyler’s tremendous talents from start to finish. However, two films from female filmmakers have stood even further apart from the pack and become two potential titans this awards season – should they continue to receive the attention they deserve and not be swept aside in the coming weeks, as so many prior female-led/female-directed films have – and those are Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” and Maria Schrader’s “She Said.”

Both films are stories centered around sexual assault, but primarily around what follows these traumatic events and experiences. “Women Talking” takes place in an isolated Mennonite colony in 2010, where eight women from two families grapple with reconciling their reality with their faith after it is revealed that men from their community drugged and raped the women every night for years. As their assaults come to light, these eight women must decide whether they will remain in the colony and fight or if they will leave and abandon the kingdom of God. Conversely, “She Said” takes place in the near-present day, and this film follows New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor as they investigate the sexual misconduct allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein and eventually break one of the most important stories in a generation – a story that helped ignite a movement and shattered decades of silence around the subject of sexual assault in Hollywood and really, in the world as well. With stories this stirring and socially significant, it’s no surprise that “Women Talking” and “She Said” are two of the weightiest films of the year – and in years – but what makes these two movies essential explorations of this subject is not just the content they’re covering, but the ravishing restraint they use to convey their themes.

In both “Women Talking” and “She Said,” though we hear countless women share stories of their sexual assaults and subsequent trauma, these events are never depicted as they occurred – they’re only told to us. This is in stark contrast to pretty much every other movie ever made about sexual assault, in which, time and time again, we have been forced to witness this atrocious act for ourselves and experience it alongside the woman (or man) being assaulted, seemingly in an effort to align the audience more acutely with this protagonist’s perspective and evoke an emotional response. But after years of this approach – and too many portrayals of sexual assault in cinema that feels more like torture porn than true “sympathetic storytelling” – we’ve reached a point where we don’t need to see sexual violence in order to feel for a victim of an offense like this (and really, we never needed to). When we’re inundated with these stories each and every day or have lived through these events ourselves, we don’t need scenes of sexual assault shoved in our faces to stir up impassioned feelings – as long as the cast and crew believe in the certainty of these circumstances and show that onscreen, that’s all that’s necessary, and we will too. “Women Talking” and, “She Said” believe in their creative teams’ empathetic filmmaking enough not to rely on superficial shock value. And that, alongside their delicate direction and sensitive screenplays, is one of the primary reasons they deserve our praise this awards season.

Women Talking” is one of the first films to ask, “what’s next?” in regards to how one can possibly pick up the pieces of their life following such an unimaginable experience, but not just for one woman – for all women. Over the course of a little over an hour and a half, the women in this colony act as stand-ins for the women of our world as well (while also possessing fully fleshed-out personas of their own, courtesy of Sarah Polley’s sharp script) diverse in thought, age, and experience, hashing out all the ups and downs of any potential decision we make to stand up for ourselves without sacrificing our own safety or sanity at the same time – or those of our families too, as we women always have more to think about than just ourselves. They don’t ask any easy questions, and the answers are even more complicated (with few that work for everyone), but the fact that this conversation is being had at all matters most, and not just for these women in particular, but for the women watching it unfold, too. We women have been conditioned to internalize these issues for centuries, never speaking on this subject matter – even with each other – and simply accepting it as a fact of our existence. So naturally, when we do finally pick that scab and lay our souls bare, it’s bound to get a little messy. But pushing through that mess is the only way we find a path to a future – a future that will protect us and future generations. And no film has better captured the initially ugly but ultimately uplifting mood of that mess better than “Women Talking.”

She Said” is also about the importance of speaking on our personal stories of sexual assault, but more specifically, with the public – in an effort to hold those in power accountable for their actions and create change for every woman. These days, it’s easy to grow disenchanted with “the system,” as rapists and abusers rarely receive the punishments they deserve under the law and frequently go free, able to cause more harm to others for God knows how long. For every Harvey Weinstein we take down, there’s a Brett Kavanaugh who gets to sit on the Supreme Court. Thus, it’s impossible to blame a survivor of sexual assault for being reticent to speak out when going off what we see on a daily basis; there’s a 50/50 chance your story actually makes a difference. And yet, “She Said” somehow manages to fill us with faith in the powers that be once more – particularly, the press. As Carey Mulligan’s Megan Twohey states in the film, the core argument here is that “[they] can’t change what happened to [us] in the past, but together, we may be able to help protect other people.” It reminds us that our voices do have value and that there are so many people who do possess positions of power and privilege who are on our side, straining against this seemingly omnipresent “system” and sometimes still succeeding; the unvarnished portrayal of how laborious the pursuit of justice can be is unspeakably impactful. And “She Said” doesn’t just walk the walk – it talks the talk too, giving Weinstein’s victims (played here by Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Morton, and Angela Yeoh, among others) the space to share the very stories that took him down, specifically centering on those who weren’t the “big name” celebrities, but rather the assistants and interns he could more easily shut out and silence. But no longer.

These are not films that are free of critique, as one could say the lack of racial diversity in each limits the scope of their conversations surrounding sexual assault and the various inequities that exist when engaging with the intersectional issues that make certain women more vulnerable to sexual violence than others. But most often this year, many dissenters – who are, unfortunately, frequently men – have not sought to critique “Women Talking” and “She Said” on this element but instead on superficial attributes of each film’s aesthetic. To some, “Women Talking” is “too talky,” “too contained,” or “too dully color graded.” Meanwhile, “She Said” supposedly “lacks style,” as if a movie about sexual assault needs to be shot like a Baz Luhrmann biopic. That’s not to say that a film’s technical craft and cinematography aren’t important – the film is a visual medium, after all – but fully dismissing a movie based on these minor attributes of its aesthetic alone feels like a cop-out to avoid engaging – and empathizing – with what it’s actually discussing. There are few “perfect” films. How hard is it to accept that, even if you don’t like how “Women Talking” is color-graded – or think that “She Said” isn’t as “dynamically directed” as it could be (even though Maria Schrader’s direction is frankly the deliberate approach a film like this required) – there’s still worth in their stories, brought to life with thematically rich writing and poignant performances?

And yes, there is, unfortunately, the “Brad Pitt of it all,” too. It’s becoming impossible to discuss either of these films without mentioning the fact that Brad Pitt – who continued to work with Harvey Weinstein even after his former girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow and later wife Angelina Jolie had informed him of Weinstein’s assaults and advances against them, and who has recently been accused of abuse by Jolie – owns the production company, Plan B, that produced “Women Talking” and “She Said.” One can make the argument that Jolie’s allegations of abuse only recently became public in their entirety, long after both films had been completed, but that doesn’t erase Pitt’s dodgy history with Weinstein, especially since he’s also left out of “She Said’s” story, even though ex-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow’s experiences are included (the film does manage to be as comprehensive in its analysis of the scope of Weinstein’s wrongdoing – and all who were involved in the cover-up – as it can, but this is one area of complicity that remains unexamined). However, Pitt was not intimately involved with either film’s production whatsoever, and he additionally did not receive a PGA credit on “Women Talking” or “She Said,” meaning that he will not be nominated for any of the awards they are in the coming weeks and months, nor will he have any tangible claim to their success this season.

It sucks that Pitt has become a stain on two truly important films that mean so much not just for the film industry – in terms of its ongoing adjustment in how it approaches sexual assault in art – but for society as a whole. However, why should the actions of one man – one man who played no creative role in either of these productions, which are led, produced, directed, and written by women – force us to disregard all the other “good” these films offer? Why have men been able to place “Top Gun: Maverick” on a pedestal all season long and yet never been interrogated on Tom Cruise’s ties to Scientology, a “religion” that has been accused of widespread sexual abuse and human trafficking for decades? We live in an imperfect world (and this is most certainly an imperfect industry), and if we’re making concessions for one group of people to allow them to enjoy the art they consume – even though that art that isn’t anywhere as existentially enlightening as “Women Talking” and “She Said,” art that takes on a life of its own and fulfills a far greater social need than a “Top Gun” sequel – that grace better be afforded to everyone.

There has to be more to a great film than “serious subject matter,” but “Women Talking” and “She Said” transcend potentially cliché “Oscar Movie™” trappings by not only being simply two of the most dutifully directed, affectingly acted, smartly scripted, and all around powerfully produced pictures of the year, but also by representing a groundbreaking step forward in how empathetically – and empoweringly – stories of sexual assault can be expressed in cinema, laying a foundation for future films to build on further as we find ourselves in a future where women are finally telling women’s stories (as they always should’ve been) and in the right way. And that’s why this awards season is incomplete without them.

What are some of your favorite female-directed films this year? Have you seen either Women Talking” or She Said” yet? If so, what did you think of them? Do you think they’ll be nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account and be sure to check out our latest Oscar predictions here.

Zoe Rose Bryant
Zoe Rose Bryant
Writes for AwardsWatch & Loud & Clear Reviews. Omaha based film critic & Awards Season pundit.

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