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Complex Female Characters Have Their Moment On Screen

In a year in which the entertainment industry was rocked by harassment scandals, women’s stories have become more important than ever before. But even as waves of claims exposed destructive male behavior, toppled long-protected gatekeepers and finally, desperately insisted that women be believed, the slow but necessary shift toward greater representation of female voices took several important steps forward in 2017 with a wellspring of films featuring challenging, complex heroines who demanded to speak their truth without caring whether audiences liked what they had to say, or how they said it. It comes as no surprise that several screenplays featuring incredible, complicated women are receiving top honors from critics groups across the country as this essential conversation continues to reverberate in the cultural ether.

Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” kickstarted this conversation back in June, when the filmmaker re-envisioned Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s “A Painted Devil” as a tale of multiple generations of women coming to terms with their own identities at a particularly fraught time in U.S. history — during the Civil War — via the arrival of an invasive male presence.

“It was such an interesting premise, to look at the dynamics of women and the power struggle between men and women,” says Coppola. “I was interested in how they dealt with desire and suppression during this time at different ages of maturity.”

At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Coppola was rewarded for her work on the film with a director award, but she attributed her success less to a matter of prescience than simple humanity.

“The ’70s film was kind of treating them like hysterical crazy women,” she says. “And I would like to approach them as human and imagine what it might have really been like for women at that time, and what I could relate to about it.”

Since the release of “The Beguiled,” several films have picked up that same torch, offering audiences an equal if perhaps opposing viewpoint to the stories they think they know.

Steven Rogers’ script for “I, Tonya” makes literal sport out of defying expectations, creating an electric, unpredictable portrait of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, her mother, LaVona, and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, out of a patchwork of conflicting accounts.

“When I interviewed Tonya and Jeff, their versions of what happened were wildly contradictory, so I always knew I was going to put all of their points of view up there and let the audience decide,” Rogers says. “The one thing they did agree on is LaVona’s parenting skills, but even then I wanted to show LaVona’s point of view.

“It was not my intention to say anybody was a hero or anybody was a villain,” he says. “My thought was that all of the characters were reduced to just one thing, which was a punchline, or worse. It was very simplistic, and I thought the characters had a lot more nuance than what we were shown [in the media].”

Where Rogers’ script enjoyed the advantage of having real people and first-hand interviews to draw upon for its drama, Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch wanted to combine real-life circumstances culled from research with the classic tropes of Disney princess stories for “The Florida Project,” Baker’s vivid, sympathetic tale of a single mom who reluctantly becomes a sex worker to provide for her mischievous daughter in a low-income Orlando community.

“We knew obviously this was going to be dividing audiences,” Baker says. “Our focus is just have empathy for her, and look at it from the position of this woman is in survival mode. She might be making decisions that are dangerous for her child, and in some other people’s perspectives, ethically or morally wrong, but that’s not the point.

“We’re trying to put a human face on this woman who is obviously struggling,” he says. “We see that it sparks discussion, people debating whether she’s a good mom or not. And that’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted people to discuss this, but ultimately to have the empathy for her.”

With “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh conjures a scenario too nightmarish to ignore — the rape and murder of a young woman — and then engages us with the righteous and angry journey of a mother seeking justice for her daughter. Where other writers may have faced the challenge of softening their characters ever so slightly, McDonagh says he made Mildred, his grieving protagonist, as furious as possible. “I would actually say the opposite was almost true,” he says. “We edited out a couple of moments in which she appeared too nice or reasonable.

“Mostly what I always tried to keep in mind, both during the writing of it but especially while working with Frances on set, was the tragedy and the horror of what had happened to Mildred’s daughter before the story began. In that sense, there was always a truth and almost a righteousness to that anger. And I think we can relate to Mildred because we believe, or we hope, that we would react in the same way, if we had the guts.”

Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” meanwhile, deals with the decidedly more recognizable ups and downs of mother-daughter relationships. But Gerwig, making her solo debut as a writer and director, exemplifies the most exciting instincts of filmmakers telling female stories, reveling in the idiosyncrasies and shades of gray that define most human interactions, and elevate fictional stories into identifiable emotional experiences.

“One of the things I like with Marion and Lady Bird, in particular, is their flaws aren’t cute,” she says. “They’re not just interesting tidbits that make them more adorable. Just writing either monsters or people who are perfect, or, writing people who are essentially perfect and just have some adorable flaws, that’s not the same thing as having a human being.

“Something I wanted to show is that Marion and Lady Bird essentially were the same, and that was all on the page,” Gerwig continues. “But that was all written out because I guess I felt like if the conflict wasn’t real then the love wouldn’t seem real. You wouldn’t be able to really buy it.” It’s the intensity of the damage inflicted, she suggests, that generates not just audience recognition, but the powerful meaning and emotional weight of what was broken, and what must be fixed afterward.

“It’s got to have a base of love, but then the fights have to feel scary even though the life is recognizable,” Gerwig says. “If it seemed like everything was hunky dory, then there’s nothing to come back from, there’s nothing to repair.”

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