Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On American Realism Part 1 - The Women

Two former Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Competition winners I just recently got to see: Frozen River and Winter's Bone. Both feature incredible talent and an ambition for a realistic portrayal of its subjects and the world they live in.

Both films are set in milieus generally ignored and overlooked because nobody bothers. No doubt both deal with tough subjects: organized crime, drug trafficking, illegal immigration, economic and emotional desperation. But both show realities of contemporary America that can't be ignored and they do it in a sensitive and engaging way that is hard to escape.

The earlier Frozen River (2008) directed by Courtney Hunt, revolves around Ray Eddy who lives with her two pre-teen sons in a trailer park in upstate New York. Ruined and driven by his gambling addiction, Ray's husband abandoned the already struggling family. In order to make ends meet Ray partners up with Lila, a young Indian woman from a neighbouring reservation, to transport illegal Pakistani and Chinese immigrants from Canada into the US across the frozen St. Lawrence River.

In Winter's Bone (2010), directed by Debra Granik, young Ree Dolly has to track down her missing father in order to prevent her family from being evicted from their property - the only thing of value left to them. While Ree's catatonic mother is incapable of providing for Ree and her two younger siblings, Ree is barely able to put food on the table herself. On her search for their father, Ree penetrates deep into the machinations of the local drug clan and is eventually able to discover why her father really disappeared.

Now, neither of these two films I would label "Arthouse," like it is done (in a sometimes condescending and ignorant kind of way) with many films that are  simply produced outside of the Hollywood system. In fact, both of these films follow quite conventional storytelling techniques. They tell a straightforward story, with a certain kind of resolution. Both are well written and directed and executed with a unique visual style appropriate to the subject matter. But they're not reinventing the wheel. It is that perfect mix between choosing a difficult issue and spinning an authentic but captivating story around it, which to me make Winter's Bone and Frozen River so special and important.

It'll be interesting to see Granik's and Hunt's next work. "Frozen" is Hunt's debut as a feature director but she's been directing for TV. Granik has another feature to her credit, Down to the Bone (2004), which I have yet to see. I hope both will keep creating extraordinary, unique work with a purpose beyond entertainment.

A director who has kept her ambitions and stayed true to her own style is Kelly Reichardt and I'm excited to see the upcoming Meek's Cutoff (2010). Reichardt has developed her own kind of Realism over the years. Old Joy, which you could call her debut, was sort of rooted in the Mumblecore movement (which everyone who's not involved in it seems to hate, although it plays a major part in the DIY and DIWO movements of the last years and paved the way for a new kind of independent filmmaking) and works with minimal but refined storytelling. 

Reichardt's follow-up Wendy & Lucy was similarly intimate and personal but more focused on a specific issue. Out of financial desperation Wendy is forced to travel across the US in the hopes of finding a job in Alaska. Just as she gets close to her destination she gets stranded in Oregon, when her beloved dog Lucy dissappears. Of course, Wendy goes to great lengths to find Lucy and when she does, she's faced with a difficult decision. Michelle Williams who plays Wendy also plays the lead in Reichardt's latest, Meek's Cutoff, a "Western" in which a group of settlers finds itself in a hopeless situation due to the failure of their controversial leader to lead the way. I'll be reporting back once I've seen it. Michelle Williams has not only been incredibly careful but adventurous in choosing her recent roles and I very much admire her for that.

If you look at this roster of films you'll notice that they're all driven by women, either in front or behind or both sides of the camera. I didn't study the history of independent film over the last years, these films came together right here spontaneously. Take what you want from it but maybe most guys don't have the necessary empathy and sensitivity for these subject matters. Is that a shit storm coming my way? More on the men next time.



  1. That's no shit storm. That's just the sound of feedback. Thank you for this post.

  2. Thanks. Always appreciated. A little more on this soon.