The film business is in a state of flux. Digital formats have allowed piracy to explode which means that it’s become harder to monetize content.
Add to it that audiences, accustomed to accessing everything online, have begun to feel as if content should be free, forgetting that they are often paying steep subscription fees and that creators deserve to get paid. And finally too many entertainment companies have been taken over by corporations happy to settle for mindless franchises that are guaranteed to play overseas.
So films that might appeal to audiences looking for more than a few thrills to go along with their bucket of popcorn are mostly made “independently,” which means that the filmmaker is generally forced to raise the funds herself to make the film. Luckily, despite these stiff odds, independent films continue to be made and continue to change minds and make profits.
These films often revolve around an issue that has disturbed the filmmaker, which is understandable - given the hurdles, a filmmaker needs a reason to keep going. And in the case of female filmmakers, that reason is often an injustice.
There are three films coming out soon that focus in different ways on one of the most serious challenges facing young women coming of age in this country. That challenge is how to escape being sexually assaulted as you make your way through school and into the work force.
Before you turn the page, think about this. Over one in four young women will be assaulted before they graduate from college. That figure just astounds me and has prompted activists like Jackson Katz to take on the cause.
Katz has an exercise he does whenever he gives a talk. He asks the men in the audience to tell him what they do to avoid being sexually assaulted. Katz says there’s always an uncomfortable silence in the room as the men look at one another — perhaps joking that they try to stay out of prison. But basically they have nothing to offer since they honestly don’t give it a thought.
Katz then asks the women the same question and gets back dozens of suggestions from never going jogging at night to carrying our keys clenched between our fingers to checking the back seat before getting into a car parked in a parking lot to having a man’s voice on the answering machine etc. etc.
So it’s a fact of life for women. And young women are particularly vulnerable, hence the slew of movies coming out about this problem.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” by Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats”) is a naturalistic road movie about two high school girls who travel from their small town in a conservative part of Pennsylvania to Manhattan where one of them is going to try to get an abortion. And while this might seem to be a film about the difficulty of obtaining a legal abortion, that’s really just the MacGuffin as Hitchcock would say — in other words the excuse driving the plot.
What the film is really about is how these young high school girls are confronted at every turn by men of every age trying to get their hands on them. From the skeevy boss in the grocery store where they work who insists on fondling their hands when they turn in their paper receipts to the stepdad who’s routinely raping his now pregnant stepdaughter to the manipulative adolescent they meet on the bus who follows them into Port Authority and extracts sex from one of them when they run out of money for food.
These young women have been taught that they are victims and that their best shot is to work the system they’ve been assigned.
Why should you watch this film? Because every moment rings true, the performances are terrific, and the filmmaker is rising in the ranks.
Moving on to college, we have “Promising Young Woman,” a thriller by Emerald Fennell about a woman taking revenge on the men who raped her best friend in college. And again, the rape is the MacGuffin. What we’re really watching is how whenever our heroine pretends to be lost or drunk or otherwise vulnerable, in comes a “nice young man” who tries to manipulate her into sex. Only in this case, she catches them at it, much to their shame and outrage. “Date rape” is what it’s called. Or “gang rape” in the case of the college incident. But let’s just say she gets her revenge…
Why should we watch this? Carey Mulligan’s performance is fantastic. She’s constantly pivoting as she sets up the men and women who’d take advantage of her. And it’s exciting, watching her get even. And beautifully shot.
After graduation, we get our first job. And in the case of “The Assistant” by Kitty Green (“Casting JonBenet”), it’s at an independent film company run by an ogre who bears a remarkable resemblance to Harvey Weinstein, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison in a landmark #MeToo case. Once again we watch a male predator consume every young woman in his path. It’s a merciless depiction of Weinstein and “casting couch” doesn’t begin to capture the oppressive nature of a business that routinely demands sexual compliance — or a willingness to look the other way — for advancement. I’ve been in Weinstein’s offices and I can attest to the veil of tension and arrogance worn by those who’ve committed to keeping his secrets.
Why watch this? For those interested in the film business, it’s a behind-the-scenes look at the company that brought you many of your favorite films. The writer-director worked for Weinstein himself and she takes you through her day in exquisite detail, allowing you to understand first hand the pressures she faced as she watches yet another young woman head into his office, the door closing behind her. There’s also a brilliant performance by Matthew Macfadyen (“Succession”) as a truly venal human resources exec.
I’ve been working on a film on this subject myself. “About That Night” follows an exuberant, ambitious young woman who wakes up after a raucous campus party to discover she may have been sexually assaulted. She has no memory of what happened and as she moves forward — seeking medical care, facing the boy in class, running the gauntlet on the Quad, gathering the courage to bring a complaint, defending herself at the hearing - we jump out and re-enact six different theories of what happened when she and the boy left the party and went down that long dark hall to the room where she’s discovered hours later, unconscious and wounded.
What will make this film different and worth watching is that it addresses the all too common problem of “he said/she said” by showing how the truth gets lost as the perspectives multiply. Like “Promising Young Woman,” it will also have lots of “movie charm” as it’s a mystery and a courtroom drama and a romance driven by a crime.
I’ll keep you posted as I move forward and welcome anyone who’d like to become part of our community. Meanwhile, see these films by Eliza and Emerald and Kitty. And if you’re someone affected by this issue or just want to learn more, please go to my website for resources and support: AboutThatNightTheFilm.com.
(Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.)