The Oscars are tomorrow! I’m attending an Oscar party hosted by some friends and am fretting over what to pick on my ballot for the pool. It was a great year for girls on film, though! My friend Abby sent me an NYT article, “Hollywood’s Year of Heroine Worship” which looks at the cluster of heroine-centered films of 2012 within the larger context of a rather male-dominated film industry. Just looking at the list of nominees for the Oscars this year, though, I’m happy to see at least a handful of films featuring strong young female characters.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), Best Actress (Quvenzhane Wallis), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis is the youngest person to be nominated for Best Actress and was just five years old when she auditioned and six when the movie was filmed. Frankly, I was amazed by her performance. Wallis portrays anger in an intense way that is just surprising for a child. She brings such a strong will and fire to the character of Hushpuppy. Plus, she punctuates the film with these little shrieks that are both infantile and powerful. It’s pretty cool.
I read some pretty good articles about race and class in the film at Colorlines and Bitch Flicks. For my part, I thought that the film had really strong corollaries with Hurricane Katrina, but as it takes place in a sort of magical realist universe it also resists any allegorical readings. Mostly it’s a really beautiful, strange film and I value the strong voice of Hushpuppy as a narrator who sees and understands more than her father realizes. There’s such sadness to the character, who longs for love, but also a wealth of self-worth and determination that is a-typical to portrayals of girls on film.
Nominated for Best Original Screenplay. I really loved this film. Though I think director Wes Anderson is an incredible film maker, I don’t usually love his films. Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald wrote that “Most of Wes Anderson’s previous pictures came from the head; Moonrise Kingdom is one from the heart.” I think that’s pretty true to why this film felt different for me too. Newbie Kara Hayward is perfect for an Anderson film and I found myself totally engrossed by the romance developing between Suzy and Sam. I also loved the way this film portrays young love. There’s a magical innocence to the film that’s complicated by the way adults perceive both Suzy and Sam as emotionally disturbed. As far as I can tell they’re just in puberty. Further, there are scenes exploring intimacy (physical and emotional) that wonderfully capture falling in love in a way that fits the youth of the characters without inviting the audience to roll their eyes or dismiss the feelings because the lovers are young.
Meanwhile, I appreciated that Suzy is both feminine and subversive in her own way. I like that she runs away from home with a kitten and a suitcase full of library books she stole so she could feel powerful. Also, all those books are about heroines. For a lot of the film she follows Sam’s lead and his plans, but she also has an assertive voice in their romance, even as she sullenly doesn’t say much. She’s a complicated, odd heroine (kind of like Margot Tenenbaum, sort of) who I’m guessing a bunch of moody, smart teenage girls can relate to in some way. Anderson can do so much with his characters while saying so little. To me it’s the best part of his films.
Brave: Nominated for Best Animated Feature. I wrote quite a lot about Brave this summer, so I’ve already said my piece about it. You can also read my review at The Waynedale News. Though I found Brave disappointing in many ways, I think it’s important to note that all the other nominees in this category are films about boys. Then there’s Wreck-It Ralph which was both sexist and really heteronormative even as it told a pretty compelling story about forging one’s own identity and not judging people based on what they look like.
Zero Dark Thirty: Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Jessica Chastain), Best Original Screenplay, Editing, and Sound Editing. I had a hard time writing my review for this film because of how ambivalent and controversial it is. One of the great aspects of it, however, is the strong female lead. Maya is an imperfect hero, but she’s also determined, intelligent, and strong. I think the best part about the portrayal of Maya is the way she moves through a very male-dominated career in such a way that the audience can see her struggle, but the men around her aren’t saying she’s pretty smart for a girl. And you can see her get on her bosses’ nerves, but no one is calling her bossy or a bitch. In a way, it’s a relatively gender neutral portrayal, which is precisely why I think it’s a good portrayal for girls and women to see. My class and I watched the trailer for an in-class activity about brainstorming research topics and one student wondered why the hero was a woman and another countered with “why does it matter that she’s a woman?” I think there’s a lot of room for conversation about many aspects of the story this film shows, but gender is certainly one of them.
Les Miserables: This gets honorable mention because mostly it’s about adults in the French Revolution, but there’s Cosette. And Anne Hathaway’s performance is heartbreaking. And then there was her amazing use of an awful moment on the Today Show to talk about the exploitation of women’s bodies. (Watch Anne school Matt Lauer) Go Anne! So there’s the portrayal of the intersectionality of class and gender in the film and a positive female role model off-film.
Check out the Complete Nominations List for more information on the 85th Annual Academy Awards.