At Sundance this year, there have been more than a few movies where female protagonists are very much muddling their way through their twenties in a way that feels incredibly honest and real. They’re confused and charming; they go on benders after they break up with their boyfriends; they have sex with strangers; they make mistakes. They’re Obvious Child’s Donna (Jenny Slate), a 28-year-old stand-up comedian and bookstore employee who gets pregnant from a one-night stand with a hot, preppy guy from Vermont who totally has his shit together. They’re Happy Christmas’ Jenny (Anna Kendrick), a 27-year-old who moves into her brother’s basement where she raids the intact tiki bar on what seems to be a nightly basis; they’re Laggies’ Megan (Keira Knightley), a 28-year-old in a much-extended adolescence who moves in with a teenager and her father.
If it feels slightly odd to be celebrating women who in no way have their shit together, that’s probably because until very recently there were essentially two tropes for twentysomething women in Hollywood comedies: You either got to play the bland (and usually blonde), uptight foil to Judd Apatow’s wacky band of man-children (Knocked Up is the paradigmatic example), or you got to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, completely wrapped up in your whimsical Anthropologie catalog of a life (see under: 500 Days of Summer). Both were male projections of the role women should play in their lives: either mommy-type saviors, or porcelain doll fetish objects. These were not movies about or even really for women.
These Sundance films, on the other hand, are normalizing and validating the real, lived experiences of young women. Perhaps we have Lena Dunham and Girls to thank in part for the growing acceptance of films with imperfect young female protagonists who feel almost too true to life, which is probably why some men still seem uncomfortable with them. It’s no surprise that two of the three Sundance movies were written and directed by women — Obvious Child by Gillian Robespierre, and Laggies by Lynn Shelton (who directed) and Andrea Seigel (who wrote it). Happy Christmas, while directed by a man (Joe Swanberg), was almost entirely ad-libbed by the cast, which, in addition to Kendrick and Swanberg (as her brother), included the wonderful Melanie Lynskey as Swanberg’s wife and, as Kendrick’s best friend, none other than…Dunham.
This in itself feels like a huge shift for Hollywood, a place where change happens so slowly you could actually die while waiting around for it (that’s not a real saying, but it feels like it should be). And of course, Sundance is a festival of independent films; the general public will probably never see many of the movies shown here. (At the festival, Laggies had been picked up by A24, as of this writing. Happy Christmas will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures and Paramount; it will be released this summer.) Perhaps that’s why they’re able to validate and normalize a lifestyle that, to studio executives, is still seen as “niche.”
The next frontier in this change, of course, is race. Dunham was taken to task in the first season of Girls for the total lack of diversity on screen; none of the Sundance movies has even one black character. It’s not that surprising when you consider that the neighborhoods where these characters live are, in real life, essentially completely segregated; the young, college-educated, white urban experience is not a melting pot — which was essentially Dunham’s defense at the time. There’s now one somewhat cartoonish black character on Girls: In the first episode of Season 3, Danielle Brooks, aka Taystee from Orange Is the New Black, plays a lesbian whom Jessa bullies at rehab.
But shouldn’t art strive to do better? The answer doesn’t seem to be for directors like Dunham to shoehorn in black characters, but that there should be more of these opportunities for young women and men of color, both behind and in front of the camera. Perhaps real change will only start to happen not only when the Ava Duvernays of the world are getting as much attention as the Dunhams, but when there are more Duvernays in the first place.