As you may have heard, Hollywood has a diversity problem. And just one of the many groups affected by this is women, particularly behind the camera. For example, The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that of the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases of 2016, just 7% were directed by women. There’s also the sad fact that only one woman to date has won the Best Director Academy Award – Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (a hyper-masculine film, by the way) in 2009. Despite the many hurdles for women in Hollywood, there are an increasing number of exciting female directors working in the world of indie cinema, and thanks to streaming services like Netflix, you can access their films more easily than ever. Here’s a list of five incredible female-helmed films streaming on Netflix right now. Take a load off on a quiet summer evening, pour a glass of your favorite beverage and check them out!
Photo: Evenstar films
1. Meek’s Cutoff
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt is a director whose work any feminist will want to watch in full: she crafts female-centric stories that focus on working-class, rural America. Reichardt’s main muse is Michelle Williams, who has starred in three of her films to date: Wendy and Lucy (2008), the recent Certain Women (2016), and Meek’s Cutoff, the loosely historical tale of an 1845 wagon train that runs into trouble along the Oregon Trail. The group of settlers, played by Williams, Paul Dano, and Zoe Kazan, among others, set off under the leadership of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a guide with a lot of bluster but, as it turns out, little understanding of where he’s headed and how to navigate the unforgiving terrain of the west. The film is not a cheerful watch, as the group trudges on endlessly for weeks in intense heat, running out of food and turning on each other. What makes Meek’s Cutoff especially intriguing is the way Reichardt spotlights the women in the group, who are rendered powerless by the sexist culture of the time, and must stand in mute frustration as the men fumble their chances at survival. It’s a harrowing tale, but a necessary one.
Photo: Forward Movement/Kandoo Films
2. Middle of Nowhere
Director: Ava DuVernay
Before Ava DuVernay went to the Oscars with 2015’s Selma, she was winning accolades and awards – including a directing award at the Sundance Film Festival –for Middle of Nowhere, a quietly powerful film about the life of a woman whose husband is incarcerated. Emayatzy Corinealdi (who should be more famous) plays Ruby, a nurse living in Compton, California who drops out of school and puts her life on hold while her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), serves an eight-year prison sentence. DuVernay’s film is the best kind of character study, one that eschews cliché and spotlights the type of character – a middle-class black woman – that we don’t often get to see at the center of the story. We follow Ruby through a journey of self-discovery that’s sometimes painful, as when she discovers some startling things about her husband, and sometimes hopeful, as when she begins a romance with a kind bus driver, played by Selma’s David Oyelowo. The film takes a hard look at issues of love, loyalty, and the sacrifices we make for both.
Photo: Ada Films
3. Your Sister’s Sister
Director: Lynn Shelton
Shelton has made a career’s worth of quiet, female-focused indies (other gems include Laggies, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Lucky Them), and she excels at telling original stories that resonate emotionally. Your Sister’s Sister stars Netflix indie king Mark Duplass as Jack, who is reeling from the death of his brother. To clear his head and work through his issues, his close friend Iris (Emily Blunt) offers to let him stay in her family cabin for the weekend. Once there, Jack unexpectedly encounters Iris’s sister Hannah (the always-sharp Rosemarie DeWitt), who is recovering from a serious life event of her own – the end of a seven-year relationship. Thus begins a claustrophobic love triangle of sorts, as Jack and Hannah become entangled despite the obvious fact that Iris – who shows up at the cabin as well – pines for her friend. Your Sister’s Sister succeeds on the strength of its relaxed mood: all the actors have a natural, believable rapport, and their story, while twisted and funny and emotionally fraught, feels like the stuff of real life, not soap operas. Your Sister’s Sister is perfect for a cozy night in, as these characters make great company.
Photo: Magnolia Pictures
4. Take This Waltz
Director: Sarah Polley
In her second appearance on this list, Michelle Williams stars in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, a harsh examination of infidelity cleverly disguised in quirky indie overtones. Williams plays Margot, a Toronto-based freelance writer who seems to be leading a charmed existence, sharing a comfortable home with her devoted husband of five years, a cookbook author (yes, the fact that this is depicted as a lucrative full time job did bother me) played appealingly by Seth Rogen. But at just twenty-eight years of age, Margot is clearly feeling restless in this relationship – a feeling that only intensifies when she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), the smoldering hipster-next-door. Polley, who wrote and directed, takes care to make Take This Waltz vital and realistic – an anti-rom-com, of sorts. Margot comes across as selfish and unlikeable, but in ways that will resonate with anyone who has been in a long-term relationship and considered the alternative. In the end, Take This Waltz offers a sharp meditation on the way our expectations for relationships often diverge with reality, leading us to make the same mistakes time and again.
Photo: Chicken and Egg Pictures
Director: Dee Rees
Pariah is the debut film of writer-director Dees Rees, a coming-of-age story that feels lived-in and real, thanks to naturalistic dialogue and performances. Seventeen-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) lives with her parents in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, finishing out her high school career and starting to embrace her sexuality. She has only come out to her openly gay best friend Laura, and while her parents and sister suspect the truth about Alike’s sexuality, they don’t acknowledge it – especially her religious mother, played by Kim Wayans. As teenagers often do, Alike is forced to live two lives: navigating her tense family life and exploring her independence, slipping out to clubs with Laura and beginning a relationship with Bina, the daughter of her mother’s friend. Pariah takes a close look at this difficult transitional period – Alike is growing up and beginning to accept herself, but she must pull away from her family in the process. Rees’s film is an authentic portrait of the sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, always exhilarating process of finding oneself.