One of the great pleasures of attending the San Francisco International Film Festival is the ability to binge on films by female auteurs, which are much harder to come by throughout the year. This year, you can catch Helen Hunt’s sophomore feature, Ride, a follow-up to her wonderful debut “Then She Found Me.” It’s also your one chance to catch last year’s Cannes Grand Prix winner, The Wonders by Alice Rohrwacher, on the big screen in the Bay Area; despite this prestigious award it hasn’t found US distribution. Mia Hansen-Løve’s much buzzed about film Eden will also screen; its star and Hansen-Løve’s co-writer, on whom the film is based, will be in attendance. The film has been incredibly polarizing since its Toronto premiere last summer: I found it frivolous if well-made, but others fell head-over-heels.
The festival will also be screening a restoration of British filmmaker Barbara Loden’s 1970s road classic, Wanda, as well as Bay Area filmmaker Jenny Olsen’s documentary Royal Road, an ode to California’s El Camino Real highway. Some of my most anticipated films of the festival are also helmed by women, including the Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy and the Brazilian drama The Second Mother, which won the World Dramatic Best Actress award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Here’s a look at a few of the female-directed films at this year’s festival, which premiered at Sundance in January.
The Wolfpack **1/2 (Dir. Crystal Moselle)
Already severely over-rated after its Sundance premiere, Crystal Moselle’s debut documentary “The Wolfpack” takes a fascinating subject and then doesn’t dig deep enough, content with messy camera-work, bad lighting, and gritty textures. Moselle follows the Angulo family — six sons, one daughter, and two parents — who live in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, homeschool their kids, and for the most part, haven’t let their children out of their social housing apartment throughout their childhood. Instead, the boys spend their time watching movies, obsessing over them, and then making their own versions of them, complete with elaborate costumes made out cereal boxes. But there’s little psychological insight, and no indication of how Moselle met this family and was allowed access to film them, missing the most interesting parts of the story. Screens May 3 at 9:30 p.m. (Clay Theatre) and May 7 at 5:45 p.m. (Sundance Kabuki).
Meru *** (Dir. Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi)
What distinguishes “Meru” from other climbing docs like “Beyond the Edge” and “Touching the Void” is the fact that it’s shot and co-directed by one of the expert alpinists on the climb, Jimmy Chin. This makes for riveting cinematography, taken from angles you could only scale as an expert climber. The film follows three experienced alpinists, Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk on their two attempts to climb the Himalayan mountain Meru: nobody had yet to reach its peak because of the very steep incline at the top referred to as the “Shark’s Fin.” What emerges is a story of brotherhood, deep friendship, and perseverance. Screens May 3 at 8:30 p.m. and May 7 at 3 p.m. (Sundance Kabuki).
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Advantageous *** (Dir. Jennifer Phang)
Writer-director Jennifer Phang’s audacious sophomore feature is an intriguing sci-fi tale of a mother, Gwen (co-writer Jacqueline) struggling to support her daughter and give her a better future. Set in a dystopian future world where women and people of colour are even more marginalized than today — companies only want to hire young women and the society fears having unemployed men on the streets more than unemployed women. It pushes Gwen into making a dangerous decision to “upgrade” to a younger and whiter body in order to keep her job. “Advantageous” raises questions about privilege and the degree to which our identity and closest relationships are tied to our physical body and presence. Jennifer Ehle has a compelling supporting role as Gwen’s icy boss. Screens May 3 at 6:45 p.m. (Clay Theatre), May 5 at 9:15 p.m. (Sundance Kabuki), and May 6 at 1 p.m. (Sundance Kabuki).
Read more: Jennifer Phang talks Advantageous >>
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Unexpected ***1/2 (Dir. Kris Swanberg)
Kris Swanberg’s sweet and quiet film is about two unexpectedly pregnant women — high school science teacher Samantha (Cobie Smulders) and her star, under-privileged student Jasmine (talented newcomer Gail Bean) — who are forced to come to terms with the major life changes that come with having a baby. Swanberg and co-writer Megan Mercier avoid all the cliches of the student-teacher friendship stories, offering a careful exploration of privilege, race, and female friendship. Although Samantha has a supportive husband (Anders Holm), the fathers are barely present in the film, a gentle and touching reminder that when it comes to pregnancy, women are ultimately going it alone. Screens April 29 at 6:30 p.m. (Clay Theatre) and May 1 at 6 p.m. (Sundance Kabuki).
Read more: Kris Swanberg talks Unexpected >>
“H.” *** (Dir. Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia)
Perhaps the most bizarre film I saw at Sundance this year, other than “The Forbidden Room,” this digital-age sci-fi film also explores women’s relationships with motherhood and pregnancy. It follows two Helens of Troy, New York: the elder (Robin Bartlett) is a collector of reborn dolls while the younger has a baby bump but isn’t actually present. Eerie things start happening in town, from the Helen of Troy sculpture head floating down the Hudson to the reversal of the magnetic poles, which results in mass panic and mass hysteria. Structured formally, like a Greek tragedy, “H.” is in every way a modern sci-fi film, complete with glitch art. Screens Friday, April 24 at 9:45 p.m. and Wednesday, April 28 at 6:45 p.m. at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema.