The Most Radical Films About Young Women’s Lives

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Precious bodily fluids abound in Wetlands. We’ve been anticipating David Wnendt’s provocative adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s novel since the start of the year, and the film has finally arrived in American theaters. The sexually adventurous and confident Helen reclaims ownership over her body and life through a series of graphic reminiscences. As our own Moze Halperin wrote: “It’s not just a transcendentalist approach to things our bodies do that we try to keep hidden, but rather a love story that uses these things as its fuel.” Wnendt’s reimagining bares all from a female perspective—which is incredibly refreshing considering Hollywood’s woman problem. In support of cinema’s radicals, here are ten other movies about young women’s lives that push the envelope.

Times Square

Two alienated teen girls from different worlds find solace in poetry, music, and friendship on the streets of New York City. Like any good youth in revolt epic, Allan Moyle’s 1980 film Times Square gives a big middle finger to parents, the medical establishment, politicians, and more. But the pulse of the film is the tender relationship shared between two young women. Moyle was forced to tone down the film’s overt lesbianism, but the passion is unmistakable (a big “ahem” to the song “Your Daughter is One”). Gritty location photography enhances the film’s subversive flavor. Artists like Manic Street Preachers (they covered the track “Damn Dog”) and Kathleen Hanna have sung the praises of the influential Times Square, which celebrates DIY culture and the power of defiant teen girls.

May

A traumatized young woman cannot forget her troubled childhood, making it increasingly difficult to connect with the people around her. Keeping company with dolls, she follows her mother’s advice: “If you can’t find a friend, make on.” And May does just that by stitching together the body parts of the “perfect” people she encounters. Angela Bettis delivers May’s heartbreaking premise in a quietly powerful breakout performance that is believable and sympathetic. Director Lucky McKee’s angsty and visceral brand of feminist filmmaking gleefully subverts oppressive constructs.

Fat Girl

Catherine Breillat is known for her explicit and uncompromising portraits of self-determined women. In 2001’s Fat Girl, centered on sibling rivalry and family relationships, the young Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and her sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) are “a combustible pair who exude the kind of dangerous heat that you seldom if ever see in Hollywood movies about teenagers.” The New York Times elaborates: “Ms. Reboux’s extraordinary performance conveys Anaïs’s mixture of precocious insight, animal canniness and vulnerability so powerfully that it ranks among the richest screen portrayals of a child ever filmed. And it provides a disturbing reminder that children’s inner lives are as complicated (and their fantasies often as raw) as those of adults.”

Rabid

In a genius, subversive move from body horror auteur David Cronenberg, the Canadian director cast former Ivory Soap model and porno chic-era porn star Marilyn Chambers in his frenzied examination of sexual panic and the monstrous-feminine.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Sensuous Czech fantasy Valerie and Her Week of Wonders sets its 13-year-old character in an uncanny and erotic dreamscape for a heady tale of adolescent awakening. Jaromil Jires’ symbolist storytelling draws us deep into the mythology of womanhood unbound.

Palindromes

Todd Solondz questions ethics and responsibility in his radically cast 2004 film Palindromes, in which pregnant 12-year-old protagonist Aviva is played by eight different actors (some adult, some male). Her story shifts through these various characters, as does the moral ground on which they all stand. J. Hoberman writes:

Premiered during the 2004 presidential campaign, Palindromes suggests a nation fighting its second (or perhaps third) civil war. And like John Waters’s A Dirty Shame, Bill Condon’s Kinsey, and (mutatis mutandis) Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, it conceptualizes the blue and red states of mind in terms of sexual autonomy. But unlike these other filmmakers, Solondz is not a humanist. Leigh’s backstreet abortionist can be read as martyred saint or innocent monster; Solondz’s characters are essentially static. This is the spelled-out meaning of his title: Late in the movie, Dawn’s mathematically minded brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), explains his philosophy that people cannot change their basic nature; they are like words that, frontward or backward, are always the same. Aviva is fighting for her body, her self, and Solondz imagines that as her right, at age 13, to have a baby—a position both sides of the abortion issue would heartily oppose.

Ms. 45

Unhinged feminist essay or a female-led exploitation mashup of Taxi Driver and Death Wish? Abel Ferrara pits his mute, violated heroine (Zoë Tamerlis Lund) against the scum of New York City with a .45 caliber pistol. In that twisted Abel Ferrara way, she reclaims her dignity and womanhood. The director spoke about the feminist thread in Ms. 45 during a 2013 interview:

I grew up through the feminist movement, you know what I mean, I was there for the whole thing. And “feminist” has different kind of connotations for me. The whole women’s liberation movement was something very real to me and the girls I was with, and being in university at the time, and all that. Zoë was like 10, 12 years younger than me or whatever, so it had a whole different meaning to her. Zoë was the ultimate feminist, you know, and she just sort of saw it in a different way. She’d talk all day and night about the feminism in this movie. I mean, listen, it was written by a guy, it was directed by a guy, but it was acted by her. The woman’s side of this movie is right there in the person who’s playing it.

Cheeky

Italian erotic maestro Tinto Brass’ fetishistic films reveal his affection for the female form, but they ultimately center on sexually active, autonomous women who break through the confines of traditional relationships. Brass’ leading ladies engage in rebellious sexual acts, ridding themselves of all shame, challenging notions of purity. That Brass’ movies frequently take place in Catholic-dominated Italy (usually starring Italian actresses) resonates all the more. In Cheeky, sexual freedom is explored through young Carla’s erotic adventures in London as she searches for an apartment to move into with her conflicted Venetian boyfriend waiting back home.

Pepi, Luci, Bom

Pedro Almodóvar loves independent female characters—especially those who break all the rules. In Pepi, Luci, Bom, women from different walks of life (a punk rocker, a housewife, and a modern woman) have no interest in maintaining the status quo in Madrid. They unleash a transgressive torrent of female agency upon the masses. Almodóvar’s raucous debut was especially potent in the wake of Franco’s dictatorial reign over the director’s home country.

She’s Gotta Have It

From Dr. Guthrie Ramsey’s essay on Spike Lee’s feature film debut:

In addition to gender role reversal in this film—Nola tells one of the men that she loves him while they are engaging in intercourse, a practice typically associated with males— this film is a tribute to women’s strength. Beginning with a reference to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God [an African-American literature classic], viewers can be sure to be introduced to a woman as independent and rebellious as Janie [the protagonist in Hurston’s book]. Just as Billie Holiday, whose image is displayed on Nola’s cabinet, revolutionized jazz, Nola follows the footsteps of this great African American woman before her to courageously pursue counter-hegemonic relationships for the sake of her own pleasure alone.