“Men always seem to end up on top,” goes “Women Is Losers,” the Janis Joplin song that lends writer-director Lissette Feliciano’s 1960s-set feature debut its title. It’s a fitting line to ponder in the context of her over-enthusiastic yet frustratingly clumsy feminist film, which declares “inspired by real women” in its first frame before going on to illustrate their struggles against the era’s routine sexism.
It’s obvious that those unnamed and undoubtedly courageous real women mean a great deal to Feliciano, who utilizes her picture’s protagonist — a young, hardworking San Franciscan battling against the period’s patriarchal indignities — as a mouthpiece to give them a retroactive voice, and perhaps even to interrogate how far women’s rights today still have to go in a world where men continue to end up on top. But while these are commendably well-intentioned ambitions, “Women Is Losers” sadly squanders the viewer’s goodwill by over-explaining itself at every turn, amid inelegant period backdrops where actors look like they’re playing dress-up, out-of-place needle-drops from the ’80s (like Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money”) and, in at least one scene, distracting appearances by modern-day cars.
One piece of good news is the pulsating presence of Lorenza Izzo in the lead. As the long suffering Celina, a Catholic school girl from a conservative immigrant family trying to make ends meet after an unplanned pregnancy alters the course of her life, Izzo delivers a vibrant performance that reinforces her fascinating acting range, building on her bewitching turn in Eli Roth’s home-invasion horror-comedy “Knock Knock” and vigorous emergence as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Italian starlet wife in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Throughout “Women is Losers,” she harnesses a raw and agile kind of screen quality, obliquely bringing to mind the young, vivacious Lindsay Lohan of the early 2000s.
It’s a rewarding experience to watch Izzo thread a tricky line with ease here, emitting both a child-like innocence and gradual steeliness that slowly yet convincingly sharpens and matures. If only the film could deserve her level of commitment. But amid a tonal uncertainty that ping-pongs between a sunny coming-of-age tale in the vein of “Riding in Cars with Boys” and earnest melodrama, as well as various simple-minded, politically-loaded dialogue lines one can’t help but cringe at, “Women Is Losers” often feels like a slogan-heavy manifesto, rather than a flesh-and-blood movie with a sincere story to tell.
The movie introduces Celina in 1967 as a brainy high-schooler, someone with a promising future until she becomes pregnant by her Vietnam veteran boyfriend Mateo (Bryan Craig) and loses her spirited best friend Marty (Chrissie Fit) to a horrific case of illegal abortion pre-Roe v. Wade. Unable to move out of the home of her oppressive parents (Steven Bauer and Alejandra Miranda, both memorable despite their respective characters’ one-note nature), Celina works multiple jobs as an administrative clerk and cleaner later into the ’60s, putting every penny she makes toward a better future. Once she grabs the attention of her boss Gilbert (Simu Liu) at her day job, Celina starts climbing in her career and accelerates in her path towards financial freedom. That is, until the initially helpful enabler Gilbert shows his true opportunistic intentions, withdrawing his support after Celina refuses his subtle sexual advances and marries Mateo.
Taking a page from “Fleabag,” Feliciano often has Celina and the other characters break the fourth wall, so topics like everyday sexism, abortion rights, racism and intersectionality can be unambiguously described for the audience by someone staring directly at them. But rather than furnishing the narrative with smart observations or original witticism, these scenes diminish the film’s integrity, slighting a hopefully already alert and informed viewer’s attention and intelligence. Elsewhere, the helmer occasionally demonstrates some filmmaking dexterity, as in an early scene where she inventively manipulates the passage of time between Celina’s naive school days and pregnancy period, showing her growing belly in a swiftly edited sequence.
On the page, Feliciano is sharpest when she leans into Celina’s intersectional identity as a Latina, authentically portraying her unique hardships when she bravely claims fairness and basic decency from a society that won’t acknowledge her dreams of upward mobility. But then the filmmaker’s unwarranted overindulgence of spelling everything out hinders these small triumphs. For example, it feels overly calculated when a mixed-race couple helping Celina out talks about discrimination in soundbite form or when we hear about the Roe v. Wade ruling on the radio, especially since “Women Is Losers” includes very little in the name of the era’s stirring social and political climate prior to this point. It’s definitely a movie you want to root for, but a misguided heavy-handedness ultimately stands in the way.