My first vivid memory of female friendship portrayed in film comes from Michael Goldenberg’s 1996 rom-com Bed of Roses. Pamela Adlon’s line, directed at her best friend’s love interest — “If you ever hurt her, I’ll kill you” — is, since adolescence, stored in my why-do-I-remember-this drawer. Fortunately, a sidekick in a rom com who is only there to provide relationship advice to the protagonist is not the full extent of how female friendship has been covered on the big screen.
It matters if cinema reflects the complexity of the given universe fictionalized in front of the camera (so that rampant teenage imagination has a better frame of reference than the world of Bed of Roses, for one thing). For the onscreen representation of female friendship, this means showing the intricacy of the relationship, bringing multifaceted characters with wide-ranging emotions to the story, and indicating how characters’ environment shapes them. Viewing female friendship through the work of women directors offers a perspective that steers away from simplification.
Sophie Mayer, the author of Political Animals – The New Feminist Cinema identifies Dorothy Arzner’s The Wild Party (1929) as one of the first examples of women directors depicting female relationships. The film — about an all-female college from the early days of talking pictures — focuses its attention not only on a relationship between a student and a professor, but also on the girls’ “friendship, play, jealousy and loyalty." To this day, high school and college settings remain popular for female friendship (and teenage meanness) stories. Clueless, Mean Girls, Pitch Perfect — the list is long.
The ground is, however, covered beyond that premise. Sophie Mayer mentions arthouse cinema directors, who offer a look on female friendship through the lens of political activism of the 1970s. “Diane Kurys’ Peppermint Soda (about teenage sisters) and Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (about two school friends who get involved in the movement for abortion rights in France) both appeared in 1977, and could be said to mark a watershed in women’s cinema, a product of a decade of feminist politics. Sally Potter’s influential film Thriller (1979), which asks what if the women in La Bohème (Puccini’s opera) became friends, and Claudia Weill’s recently rediscovered film Girlfriends (1978) emerge from the same moment – women finding friendship and solidarity with each other, both through more women entering the workplace, and through their involvement in the women’s movement internationally.”
Films with women at the helm in the 21st century show female friendship in a cathartic way that captures the realism of how people interact. Here are the movies that represent self-motivated complex characters. Each of the titles puts a different aspect of the experience of female friendship under the microscope.
PS: Pamela Adlon rocked in Bed of Roses, even though the friendship didn’t.
ME WITHOUT YOU, directed by Sandra Goldbacher (2001)
Against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher on television and changing fashions of 1970s and 1980s Britain, Holly (Michelle Williams) and Marina (Anna Friel) are each a constant in each other’s lives. What started as a deep childhood attachment shifts, however, with time, into a minefield of resentments. The struggle of sustaining a friendship that is overshadowed by rivalry over men and accomplishments consumes them. Their university years are especially telling about the nature of their relationship. Each questions her own personality when compared to that of the other. Marina tries to imitate Holly’s intellectualism to impress a professor. Holly emulates Marina’s Madonna-like look and audacious behavior to attract… the same professor. The pain of heartbreaking feuds which never entirely vanished is weighed against the history of a life spent together. “I don’t like what I am with you, we are suffocating each other," Holly finally musters the courage to say. “There is no me without you," cries out Marina.
GIRLHOOD, directed by Celine Sciamma (2014)
Four vigorous young women, tough on the outside, let their guard down in each other’s company. Tenderness comes up to surface when they are alone and free to behave spontaneously. This French coming-of-age film takes a closer look at the influence of a peer group over a developing teenage identity. Becoming the fourth in a girl gang propels Marieme (Karidja Toure) to discover her inner strength and self-determination. Questioning certain aspects of this newly found companionship, she is nevertheless drawn to the charismatic gang leader Lady (Assa Sylla). Her words of advice, “You do what you want,” will continually reverberate in Marieme’s independent life, leading her to the decision of fleeing home to escape her threatening brother.
BREATHE, directed by Melanie Laurent (2014)
The film shows how intense and cruel a friendship can be when confronted with adolescent passion and need for dominance. Shortly after Sarah (Lou de Laage) joins Charlie's (Josephine Japy) class as a new student, the two shift from strangers to best friends. Sleepovers, gossip, giggles, parties, stroking each other’s hair and affectionate embraces – the strong bond develops making the girls inseparable. Sarah enjoys Charlie’s devotion and fascination with her, while Charlie blossoms on the extension of Sarah’s self-confidence. One seemingly irrelevant incident turns the exclusive closeness into a toxic dependency. Charlie introduces Sarah to an old acquaintance as her classmate. Sarah takes offence: “"I would have said you were my friend." From then on, Sarah starts an unpredictable game of push and pull that makes Charlie’s guts wrench.
LOVESONG, directed by So Yong Kim (2016)
Sarah’s (Riley Keough) face beams with tranquility when Mindy’s (Jena Malone) head rests on her shoulder. Attraction is tightly intertwined with comfort and meaning found in each other’s presence. Sarah and Mindy go on a road trip to reconnect after a longer break. After an evening in a hotel and few rounds of “truth or drink” they kiss and... Confusion over the implications of their feelings brings Mindy to buy a bus ticket home the next day. Three years later, Sarah, now separated from her husband, is invited to Mindy’s wedding. She longs for confirmation of their fulfilling bond. While observing Mindy in a new setting during wedding preparations, she patiently and hopefully waits to be alone with her.
ALWAYS SHINE, directed by Sophia Takal (2016)
“It’s a movie about competition between women and how women feel pressured to behave in a particular way in order to be considered feminine and how that can drive us crazy," Sophia Takal sums up the plot on the Lady Problems podcast. Always Shine simultaneously ruminates on what constitutes a friendship and what might bring it to an end. Anna (Mackenzie Davis), vocal, unapologetic, but insecure, and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), shy and delicate, both actresses, drive to a remote house for a weekend. Anna tries to control her belligerent behavior, but jealousy over Beth’s progressing acting career (she at least has an agent and did a magazine interview) and delicate, girlish aura is hard to control. Beth has been exercising an inconspicuous form of sabotage by neglecting to mention Anna to her agent. Tension has almost a physical presence fueled by not only initially unvoiced emotions but also the still-present grip of stereotypical perceptions of women.
Top photo: Girlhood
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Emilia Sierzputowska is a freelance writer based in Gdansk, Poland. She is on the lookout for patterns and trends in popular culture. Follow her at emiliasierzputowska.journoportfolio.com.