Culture / Entertainment

Women Dominate Sundance — and These Female Powered Movies are Commanding the Stage

Bidding Wars, Major Buzz and Real-Life Star Power

BY // 02.04.19

PARK CITY, Utah — As the Sundance Film Festival raced through its second week, female empowerment emerged as a dominant theme across all film categories. The festival’s commitment to diversity among its filmmakers and film reporters is clear.

Forty-two percent of the competition’s film directors are women this year, up from 38 percent in 2018. A large majority (63 percent) of the reporters granted credentials this year are from underrepresented groups.

The result of the increase in women filmmakers is the number of compelling and highly acclaimed documentaries and dramatic films directed by or starring women that will be impacting filmgoers over the next year. Here is what you can look forward to at movie theaters and streaming services.

Late Night With Emma Thompson

Emma Thompson shines as Katherine Newbury, an aging British host of a New York talk show in Late Night, a clever and fast paced comedy that had Sundance audiences laughing and cheering. Katherine, with her stinging and biting wit, has been a mainstay of late night network TV for 28 years. But her format is getting stale, her ratings are declining, and the network president (Amy Ryan) decides to replace her.

Realizing she must change to save her job, Katherine begrudgingly agrees to add diversity to her all boys writing staff. To make matters worse, Katherine is a comedian in front of the cameras but a tyrant with her staff (she calls her writing team not by their names but by numbers).

So Newbury hires Molly Patel, played by the uber talented and very funny Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the film’s script. Molly has no writing or comedy experience, and had been working at a chemical plant — a running joke in the film — but more than meets the diversity requirement (she’s both female and Indian) and does not cower to Newbury. Add director Nisha Ganatra (The Mindy Project) and John Lithgow as Katherine’s husband who provides the counterpoint of understanding and forgiveness, and you have a winner.

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The film’s structure and plot follow a tried and true format, but it delivers its main message with humor and lightness. And there are lots of messages. Kaling and Ganatra present the obvious message — that female ambition and diversity and inclusion can triumph in today’s world of the pursuit of profit and political correctness — in a positive and comically sophisticated way. But digging a little deeper one sees how Hollywood and TV view aging women, fickle viewers and comedy writing as the exclusive province of men.

At the Q&A following the showing, Kaling said she wrote the role of Katherine Newbury with Thompson in mind as the star. “Kind of a risky thing to do when you haven’t met someone” Kaling laughed.

Confirming the film’s broad audience appeal, Amazon bought it for $13 million, and all of its Sundance screenings were to packed houses.

Brittany Runs A Marathon

Brittany Runs A Marathon, a drama by first time director Paul Downs Colaizzo, stars  Jillian Bell in her first feature film lead role as Brittany  O’Neill an overweight, debt-laden, party going mess of a 27 year old who changes her life by taking up running. On its face it appears as a familiar formulaic story, but the script and acting makes this film — which premiered to raucous cheers and even tears — the toast of Sundance.

Brittany’s doctor tells her that she needs to lose 55 pounds, and because she can’t afford a gym she takes up running. At first she struggles to run a block, then a mile. Before long she plans to run the NY Marathon with two friends.

Anyone who has ever resolved to lose weight or exercise can relate to the self-hatred,  self-sabotage and obsession with the scale that affect those with a poor body image. Brittany makes some crazy mistakes. She is cruel to her sister’s overweight friend. When she takes a second job as a dog walker she gets caught living illegally in her dog owners’ home shacked up with the home’s caretaker while the owners are out of town, all which seems rather preposterous.

Jillian Bell In “Brittany Runs A Marathon.” Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Brittany starts losing weight. Friends who served her needs no longer do. And spoiler alert — yes she runs the marathon. Runners will delight in actual scenes of the NY Marathon, the first time the Marathon has allowed the race to be filmed for a movie.

This is a feel good movie with a big heart with which everyone will identify. It was reminiscent of Little Miss Sunshine, the legendary 2006 Sundance hit. A little quirky but a film that makes you laugh, cry and cheer for the protagonist. This is, after all, what makes a Sundance hit.

Still, even with all the praise being heaped on it, I thought Brittany Runs a Marathon was good but not great because it was a bit too contrived for my taste.

I am in the minority. Within minutes of the closing credits a bidding war ensued for the film, with Amazon’s whopping $14 million bid prevailing. Expect to see it this summer.

Documentaries Rule

Sundance has always been known for its documentaries. Four of the five 2018 Oscar nominated films for best documentary premiered last year at Sundance. This year was no exception. Two of my favorites featured strong, trailblazing women.

Molly Ivins Mania

Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins was sure to be a big hit, seeing the large number of Texans in the audience at the premiere of this long awaited documentary on Houston’s own political columnist Molly Ivins. Ivins, who died of breast cancer in 2007, chronicled politics, much of it focusing on Texas, in a thrice-weekly column syndicated in 400 papers.

The documentary chronicles her early years as the daughter of the CEO of Tenneco, growing up in River Oaks where she attended St. John’s high school. At an early age she was an outlier and angered her parents by bringing home black friends.

Her journalism career took her from Minneapolis to the venerable New York Times where her brash, biting wit did not quite fit with the Times restraint. One of the funnier moments of the film was when she described covering a Colorado festival for killing and dressing chickens as “a gang pluck.” The Times did not see the humor and it never made the paper.

Ivins then returned to Texas where she worked for the Dallas-Times Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram both of which gave her unfettered journalistic freedom. The brand of Molly Ivins was born.  Though her targets were largely on the right (she wrote two books skewering former president George W. Bush) she was so profoundly disappointed in President Bill Clinton that she pledged never to vote for him. 

Director Janice Engel, interviews Ivin’s family and friends, but wisely let Ivin tell her own story through her speeches and hilarious appearances on David Letterman, which drew uproarious laughter from the audience. Dan Rather, Rachel Maddow and Cecile Richards, the daughter to former Texas governor Ann Richards, provide insight on Ivin’s  national stature.

Molly ivins
Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins made an impression at Sundance.

The film does not shy away from Ivins’ darker side.  She bragged that she could drink any man under the table and seemed always to have a cigarette in her hand. Eighteen months  before her death, her friends staged an intervention for her raging alcoholism. 

Fans of Molly Ivins will delight in this film which took over six years to complete. It was clearly a labor of love  that faced challenges of financing and going through all of Ivin’s  columns and extensive memorabilia, much of which had not been archived. The film has not been acquired yet, but the Texas ACLU plans to show the film in various locations.

As we left the theatre to “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” playing, you could hear everyone saying “We wish we still had someone like Molly Ivins.”

Maiden

One of the joys of Sundance is discovering under the radar films that are so inspirational they make you cry, cheer and implore your friends to see the film.  Maiden, by experienced British director Alex Holmes, chronicles the 1989 journey of Tracy Edwards in her quest to be the first woman to sail around the world with an all woman crew in the Whitbread Round the World Race.

Edwards grew up in a troubled family and at an early age discovered sailing but was unable to join a world racing crew, which were all men at the time, other than as a cook. She determined that she would form her own crew.

It is hard to believe but Edwards had great difficulty finding a sponsor and was subjected to chauvinism from the sailing community as well as the press. As a fluke, she met former King Hussein of Jordan who financed the crew’s trip.

The documentary benefits greatly from massive amounts of archival footage from the 180 day, 33,000 mile journey filmed by one of the crew members. The footage of the crew’s battle with freezing cold, roaring seas, nearly two months at a time at sea, and sleep deprivation is both frightening and exhilarating.

Edwards is wisely not painted as a saint. Her crew rebelled against her leadership at times and described how difficult she was due to her anxiety over trying not just to compete but to win the race. At the end, even though she did not win the race, most in the audience shed a tear and gave both Edwards and the crew a standing ovation.

At the movie’s Q&A, Holmes said that he made the film after hearing Edwards speak to his daughter’s school, as a way to inspire his daughter and other women to break barriers and achieve their dreams. Maiden was acquired by Sony Pictures Classic and will be screened later this year.

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