Tribeca’s Female Directors Take a Hard Look at Women’s Struggles in a Man’s World

The thriller “Always Shine” and the documentary “All This Panic” showcase two different sides of the female experience

Last Updated: April 16, 2016 @ 12:12 AM

The Tribeca Film Festival has touted the fact that almost 40 percent of its feature films this year are directed or co-directed by women, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee cinema from a female perspective.

Liza Johnson‘s “Elvis & Nixon,” for example, focuses on a pair of famous men; documentaries like “30 for 30: This Magic Moment” (co-directed by Erin Leyden) and “The Return” (Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway) are set in all-male arenas.

But a couple of the more intriguing Tribeca films that screened at the festival on Thursday and Friday were so thoroughly focused on the female experience that they’d be hard-pressed to pass a reverse Bechdel test: In an upheaval of the usual cinematic pattern, conversations entirely between men are almost completely missing from both Jenny Gage’s documentary “All This Panic” and Sophia Takal’s narrative drama “Always Shine.”

Both films have lots to recommend them, but “All This Panic” is the more satisfying. The film follows seven teenage girls navigating the treacherous terrain of adolescence in New York City. It details a world where alcohol and drugs are taken lightly but sex is not, and where virtually everyone bears some scars from their upbringing.

First-time director Gage aims to be compassionate, not judgmental, and her startling intimacy with her subjects never feels exploitative (although it’s easy to imagine these girls’ parents learning a few things from the movie). Moments that could be milked for drama — one teen who comes out as gay, another seemingly level-headed young woman who begins cutting herself — are depicted matter-of-factly rather than melodramatically, as the film skips lightly and deftly through three and a half crucial years.

Life goes by fast, these girls do what they can in a world that tries to sexualize and contain them, and Gage gives us glances that add up to indelible portraits of young women we desperately want to see overcome the internal and external factors holding them back.

“I don’t want to age,” says one of the high schoolers early in the film. “I think that’s the scariest thing in the whole world.” That fear is ever-present in “All This Panic” — but so are joy and confusion and obsession and love and heartbreak.

“It’s life and life only,” Bob Dylan, the bard of an earlier generation, once wrote. That could also be a motto for “All This Panic,” and a big reason the film is so profoundly moving and beautiful.

One of the teens in “All This Panic” wants to become an actress — but if she sees “Always Shine,” she might have second thoughts. The unsettling, uneven drama from actress-turned-director Sophia Takal is a psychological thriller with its share of twists and turns, but more important than the details of its plot are the things it says about the roles women are expected to play, in life and particularly in Hollywood.

Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald play best friends, both of them aspiring actresses. Davis’ Beth is pliant, meek and fairly successful, while FitzGerald’s Anna is outspoken and argumentative in a way that has clearly derailed her career.

In conversation after conversation, the men around these women are condescending and patronizing; when Beth insists that she’s just fine with a role that will require “extensive nudity,” they approvingly call her sweetheart, but when Anna argues with a mechanic he tells her she’s not ladylike enough.

“Always Shine” is partly about the boxes into which women (especially actresses) are supposed to fit, but it turns creepy when it begins to detail how their acceptance or refusal of those boxes poisons the relationship between the women. The two actresses are theoretically best friends, but a weekend retreat to the idyllic Northern California outpost of Big Sur quickly turns very ugly, and very strange.

The movie makes it clear that Takal, an indie actress for years before she made her directorial debut in 2011 with “Green,” is working through some issues that have arisen during her time in Hollywood — and at the Q&A that followed the film’s world premiere at Tribeca on Friday night, she admitted that “Always Shine” was drawn “100 percent” from her experiences as an actress.

“A lot of what you see in the movie was me,” she said. “I was really desperate, really competitive … And I never felt that I fit into this idea of femininity that had been fed to me since I was a child. The movie comes from the struggles I had with femininity and my anger at women who fit into those ideals.”

Takal plays with thriller tropes in “Always Shine,” and she winks at the audience by giving her leading ladies a number of almost-nude scenes after Beth talks about how she hates always being asked to disrobe on camera. The twists and feints that make up the final stretch of the film are distracting, and sometimes feel as artificial as the relationship and the depiction of Hollywood misogyny feels true.

But like “All This Panic,” Takal’s film is an honest attempt to grapple with the female experience, and to place it in the center of a movie screen. “I feel totally changed by this movie,” FitzGerald said afterwards. “I really took a long look at my own desire to be desired.”