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Sundance 2017: 3 movies about women who refuse to behave

They’re set in 19th century Scotland, a 1960s American convent, and 2017 Los Angeles, but all three want to make us a little uncomfortable.

Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth.
Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival opened on January 19 and runs through January 29. Alissa Wilkinson is on the ground in Park City, Utah, from January 19 to 25, and we’ll be running festival diaries those days with capsule reviews and reflections on the day’s films.

The second day of Sundance was stacked with movies about the mental states of women living in constricting systems that aren’t quite their own making. One takes place in 19th-century Scotland. One is set in an American convent in the 1960s. And one is caught in the web of social media circa 2017.

I didn’t choose to see these three films because of their inadvertent connection. But it was interesting to see them take on the same themes in vastly different contexts — and all from a female perspective.

These three also raise an interesting question: how will audiences react when the women protagonists on screen refuse to behave as they’re supposed to? Each film plays with our expectations. And if we feel a little uncomfortable, they’re working.

Lady Macbeth is a shocking revenge thriller in 19th century Scotland

What a searing, jarring film Lady Macbeth is — I left feeling a little shaken.

Florence Pugh plays Katherine, a young woman married off to a man who seems to have nothing but disgust for her. On their wedding night, he orders her to disrobe, looks at her, then turns over and goes to sleep. Katherine and her husband live with his father, and both men are severe to the extreme with Katherine, forcing her to stay indoors and submitting her to extreme boredom.

But Katherine is a rebel to the core, and her husband’s and father-in-law’s cruelty sets a match to a big pile of kindling that’s been inside her all along. When they both leave town, she strikes up a passionate affair with the new groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). And when her father-in-law returns and finds out about the affair, she coolly gets rid of him.



The remarkable thing about Lady Macbeth, which was adapted by Alice Birch from a novella by Nikolai Leskov, is that it refuses to allow the audience to have the emotional reactions we want to have. We want to root for Katherine, but then she turns around and acts cruelly to her servants. We want to be on Katherine and Sebastian’s side, willing them toward happiness, but as the movie wears on, that desire sours until it bursts into startling, destructive flame.

It becomes clear that Katherine is either something of a psychopath or a sociopath — or, at least, so bent on having her way that the other humans around her stop having meaning and dignity on their own. But there’s an element of revenge fantasy, too, in how she eliminates everyone who gets in her way. If you can adjust to the idea that you’re not meant to sympathize with anyone, Lady Macbeth is quite a film.

Florence Pugh appears in Lady Macbeth by William Oldroyd, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Florence Pugh appears in Lady Macbeth by William Oldroyd, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Laurie Sparham / Sundance Institute

Each frame of the film is gorgeously shot, almost painterly in how it renders the drab home, the wild moors, and Katherine’s luminous beauty. The shots are so still and quiet that we grow nervous. Something’s got to give, and when it does — whew. It’s visceral.

Lady Macbeth is only William Oldroyd’s first feature, but what a debut it is.

Novitiate sets a struggle for purpose in a convent during Vatican II

Talk about whiplash: going from a woman bent on her own desire to a woman bent on giving all her desires up to God. Novitiate, a film about nuns in a strict order having to come to terms with the implications of Vatican II, the reforms enacted in Roman Catholicism meant to adjust the church’s practices to a rapidly modernizing world, is almost reverential, while also lodging critiques of both convent life and the reforms that greatly reduced the number of those living it.

Novitiate primarily follows Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who is raised by a nonreligious single mother (Julianne Nicholson) but ends up in Catholic school and, eventually, decides to enter the convent. A number of other young women enter as well, and the film follows them through their time as fresh-faced postulants hoping to enter the order, then more serious novitiates — especially as they struggle with their personal fears and desires, including illicit ones.



The highly restrictive nature of the order suits Cathleen, who craves the structure and the sense of belonging to God, with concrete rules for how to grow closer to him. But she has a proclivity for self-humiliation and extreme self-denial (starving herself, participating in bodily punishment) that starts to surface, and the stringency of life within the walls becomes dangerous.

Written and directed by Margaret Betts, Novitiate’s position on both the church and the reforms of Vatican II seems complicated. Vatican II effectively emptied out many convents around the world, as the movie states in text after the film. And the film raises the issue that women who served the church weren’t involved in the Second Vatican Council that handed down the reforms.

One change Vatican II instituted was proclaiming that nuns were equal to other faithful Catholics, not more special to God. And this was devastating, especially to women who’d devoted their lives to the vocation, only to feel as if the church was saying their efforts didn’t mean very much.

The sisters experience the deliberation over and creation of the reforms (and especially the changes those reforms brought to their lives) not just as a slight, but as an injustice. But as we see the journey of some of the novitiates and nuns who leave, we get a deeper understanding of why women join religious orders, and why they leave.

Novitiate captures something many religious people can understand: the idea that beating oneself (both figuratively and, sometimes, literally) as an act of devotion will make God love us more than he loves other people.

Margaret Qualley appears in Novitiate by Maggie Betts, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Margaret Qualley appears in Novitiate by Maggie Betts, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Mark Levine/Sundance Institute

This is a complicated matter, and I suspect one has to actually be Catholic to get the full weight of the movie. But while Novitiate is unsteady in some places, it’s genuinely moving, bolstered by Qualley’s and Nicholson’s performances as well as Melissa Leo as the severe Mother Superior (a remarkably well-developed character) and a host of supporting actresses. It ends without resolving every question, exactly the right choice.

It’s also worth noting that Novitiate is one of two films about nuns at this year’s Sundance (the other is the irreverent comedy The Little Hours). Last year, Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents was also set in a convent and premiered at Sundance. I doubt Sundance has suddenly gotten very Catholic, but the pattern is in keeping with an interest in religious themes at the festival. (Two years ago, Last Days in the Desert, a film about Jesus, premiered here too.)

Stories about nuns in convents make perfect sense in the Sundance context: they easily feature a large female cast and seem to be a good breeding ground for exploring the varieties of women’s experiences. Nuns dress and live in a community of uniformity, but each nun is an individual woman, with separate emotions and personalities and experiences, all the more interesting to explore in the confined context of a convent.

Ingrid Goes West is a hilarious Instagram-enabled comedy about obsession and perfection

Hopping ahead to the present day, Ingrid Goes West is about an entirely different sort of woman stuck in an entirely different set of stringent cultural constraints. In this case, it’s Instagram.

Aubrey Plaza stars, brilliantly, as Ingrid, a woman with a serious addiction to lifestyle icons on Instagram — you know, the people with millions of followers whose lives look perfectly styled and perpetually sunny and always, always flanked by brunch.



Ingrid struggles with mental health issues, especially since the death of her mother. When she spots the account of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) — a blonde Angeleno with a gorgeous Instagram profile and an apparently perfect life (complete with dog named Rothko) — she cashes the $60,000 check she inherited from her mother and heads for the West Coast, determined to be Taylor Sloane’s bff.

Startlingly, she succeeds. This is not Ingrid’s first rodeo. But we know from the start roughly where this will end up. Ingrid Goes West is a black comedy, and part of the joke is that we’re in on it.

Even if we don’t literally stalk the people we follow on Instagram, we still want their lives and their stuff. Ingrid just takes it one step further, trying to become the kind of person who would end up in one of Taylor’s Instagram posts — which means buying all the right stuff, getting her hair lightened to the right shade, and affecting the right vocal pattern.

It all goes very badly, and watching Ingrid’s pain as she experiences rejection is excruciating, but the route toward that point is very funny.

Matt Spicer, who directed the film from a script he co-wrote with David Branson Smith, remarked after the film’s premiere that he and Smith came up with the idea after having a conversation about how much they loved Instagram. That’s obvious. The film does a great job of setting up its universe quickly, illustrating what it’s like to feel an obsession with social media and deftly handling on-screen technologies that can sometimes feel gimmicky in less assured hands. And the film skewers the silliness of being a "social media star" without dismissing the reasons why a person might become one.

Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza appear in Ingrid Goes West by Matt Spicer, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza appear in Ingrid Goes West by Matt Spicer, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance Institute

That said, it’s the impeccable comic timing of Plaza and Olsen that really makes Ingrid Goes West fly, along with the outstanding O'Shea Jackson Jr., who plays the aspiring screenwriter/Batman enthusiast from whom Ingrid rents her apartment. (This is a truly inspired bit of casting, which apparently happened because Plaza spotted Jackson somewhere, realized he’d be great for the part, and sent him a DM on Twitter.)

At times, Ingrid Goes West reminded me of Welcome to Me, a weird little film in which Kristen Wiig plays a woman with borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery and spends it all on producing a surrealistic Oprah-style talk show all about herself. Ingrid Goes West is a little more broadly appealing — I loved Welcome to Me, but the comedy is so black it practically sucks matter out of the room — but both ride the tricky line of playing a woman’s mental health issues for both comedy and realism, which means the characters are unpredictable and still relatable, even to audience members who haven’t experienced the same thing.

All three of the films I screened today are notable for a very simple thing: they let their women characters just be people, really flawed people who aren’t always understandable or likable. We’re used to seeing unlikeable men on screen, but it’s still a little startling to see stories about women who are unabashedly messed up, then realize those stories won’t simply write these women off.

And three on the same day is even better.

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