Lives of Girls and Women. Movies reviewed: Acts of Dishonour, The Kids are Alright, Hey Hey it’s Esther Blueburger

This week I’m talking about the lives of girls and women.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there are way too many movies that use female characters only as walk-ons, tokens, eye candy, the straight man for joke scenes. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon, there really has been a slide from when movies had male and female characters, to now, where there are male characters and their female appendages.

There’s a fun technique some people use now, to decide whether or not a movie can be said to be a movie with women in it. It’s called the Bechdel Rule, named after the cartoonist and graphic novelist Allison Bechdel. And the rule is: does the movie have two female characters? Do they ever talk to each other? And when they talk, is it about something besides a man? It’s surprising how uncommon movies passing these three rules are. So let’s look at some that definitely pass this test.

“Hey Hey it’s Esther Blueburger”

Dir / Wri: Cathy Randall.

12 year old Esther (Danielle Catanzariti) lives in Adelaide, Australia, with her eccentric, computer geek twin brother and her nice, middle-class, but detached, parents. She goes to a private girls school in pigtails, a plaid skirt, shirt and tie, and an old fashioned straw hat. She looks like a Jewish Anne of Green Gables, but with black hair, not red. She’s a bit of an outcast in this hierarchical, conformist, school of rules, bullies and guards, and she has no friends, except her brother and a little duck she adopts.

She sits in a toilet stall and asks, Are you there God? It’s Me Margaret… I mean Esther. So she hangs out near a public high school built on the grounds of an old zoo, looking in at the kids who get to do dancing and karate and drumming instead of singing in a choir.

When something terrible happens at her school, Esther rebels. She’s befriended by Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes), an older tough girl from the public school who lends her a spare uniform. Esther becomes a stealth student at another school. She tries new things, pierces an ear, starts to wear makeup, express herself, creates a brand new personality. But at the expense of her truer, better self?

“Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger”, is a nice, cute, coming of age story, a sort of an Aussie Holden Caulfield about a young girl finding herself, and learning about the world. The movie doesn’t always work – it’s formulaic, and wavers from after school special, to light comedy, to fantasy, to more serious drama – but I enjoyed it. It’s also really well made – what’s with these Australian movies? One made in North America would just churn out something like this as a cheap knock-off; but the Australians put so much work into the look of this movie, with stylized, almost choreographed scenes, repeating colour images, running visual themes… the art direction is noticeably superior, and the editing, direction, everything, are all really good. And Catanzaritti is terrific (if sometimes too terrific) as a young girl growing up.

“The Kids are All Right”

Dir: Lisa Cholodenko

…is a real honey of a movie. It’s about a nice Southern California family, with two kids, Joni and Laser, and two mommies, Nic a doctor, and Jules, a housewife. Both kids have the same anonymous donor as their biological father, with each mother giving birth. So… as part of their agreement, the sperm bank keeps a record of the donor, and when Joni turns 18, she decides to initiate contact, mainly because 15-year-old Laser wants a chance to meet his dad. That’s where the plot thickens. All of their lives are suddenly disrupted with the introduction of Paul. Let me say who’s playing whom, so you can get an idea of this movie: Nic and Jules is Annette Bening as the uptight doctor, in maybe her best role ever; Julianne Moore, going against type, as an insecure, bumbling, apologetic mum; and Mia Wasikowska (who was Alice in Wonderland) as the gentle Joni. The third wheel dad/sperm donor is Mark Ruffallo, a motorcycle riding, college drop out, organic farmer restauranteur, who hits on every pretty woman he sees – quite successfully, it seems. He’s a do-er. He’s still the 19 year old sperm donor, but in his 40’s now, and suddenly wants to settle down and fly right… sort of.

Normally I’m not a big fan of light family dramas, but this movie has such good acting, is so funny, is such a good story – I really liked it. And it wasn’t actors playing roles, Nic and Jules really are this middle class married lesbian couple, with all their quirks and foibles and embarrassing squirmy personality traits — like they get off watching gay male porn! — that transcend the usual stereotypes, but let a few choice ones in, too. Great movie!

Act of Dishonour

Dir: Nelofer Pazira

A much graver story, Act of Dishonour is a Canadian movie that takes place in a polyglot and diverse Afghan village, a village at peace. Mejgan, played by Nelofer Pazira who also wrote and directed, is a woman returning to Afghanistan to find out about her past, and also to work on a Canadian movie being shot there. The Hazera are returning to the village as well, as are people who had fled to the west, to Kabul or to Iran, or are returning from a Taliban prison. And members of the Taliban still live there too. Kids are being educated again, allowed to watch animated movies at school, buut women are still kept sequestered away.

Meanwhile, a pretty, 15 year old girl who dresses in red and weaves and dyes cloth behind the clay walls of her home, is hoping to get married soon, and she sometimes sees a boy her age who she would like to marry, but needs a burqa to wear to her wedding. So Mejgan makes a deal – she’ll give her a bright purple burqa if the girl agrees to appear in a movie scene.

Here’s where the subtle irony comes in: A decade ago, Pazira starred in a great movie about the oppression of women in Afghanistan, called “Kandahar”. In that movie the burqa was a symbol of oppressed women and their lack of freedom. But in this village it’s a symbol of honour, tradition and beauty.

The smug director, though, is set in his ways – there’s no way he’s going to play a part in this subjugation of woman – he will not give a woman a burqa! A day or two later the Canadians will be moving on to Kabul, but what are the consequences of what they’ve done?

Acts of Dishonour deals with the stubbornness of earnest Canadian visitors, the violence of the fundamentalists, the ethnic unrest, and the concept of foreigners versus locals, (which doesn’t necessarily mean westerners) and how even the appearance of sin or dishonour to a family’s name can lead to revenge, death, or even the threat of honour killing.

I’ve only seen two movies about contemporary Afghanistan – both involving Pazira – and together they give a good before and after view of the Afghan war, (not to say that it’s over now) bookends of a decade of conflict. It’s not a gripping thriller, or a melodrama; it’s a subtle film, nicely shot — stark cold, plain, realistic — that gives a glimpse into the lives of the people there and some of the intractable conflicts and violence they face. It makes a nice metaphor about Canadians’ generous, earnest intentions for Afghanistan… and how divorced from reality they sometimes end up being.

So there you are, three interesting movies — Canadian, Australian, and American — all with at least two female characters, who talk to each other, and not just about a man. That’s a solid “three” on the Bechdel scale.

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