With the recent, last-minute departure of Jupiter Ascending from the summer movie schedule—it was supposed to come out July 18 and will now bow in February—the summer lost its only major wide release with a woman behind the camera, and that single director, Lana Wachowski, codirects with her brother Andy. I wrote a bit around this time last year about my ambiguous feelings toward the buzzword-level application of the Bechdel Test. It’s just one test of many; one might start by combining the number of summer movies passing or likely to pass that test with the number of summer movies directed by or primarily starring women.
Among movies that played in at least 100 or so theaters, last summer boasted Iron Man 3 (Bechdel! If only by chance), The Bling Ring (female filmmaker and mostly female characters!), The Heat (Bechdel and then some!), Girl Most Likely (female star, female codirector, kind of terrible!), The To-Do List (female star, female writer-director, kind of wonderful!), In a World (ditto!), Drinking Buddies and Short Term 12 (male filmmakers but front-and-center female roles), Afternoon Delight (female star, female writer-director, probably did not actually ever play in 100 different theaters, let alone 100 at once), and Passion (Bechdel!). Not an amazing crop, but it received a huge boost from one of the best slates of August indies I’ve ever seen.
This summer, of course, is only about 30 percent done (and if you want to get technical about actual seasons, not yet begun). But we can begin to list the movies hitting those same qualifications: in May, there was Moms’ Night Out (female stars, looked awful), We Are the Best! (female stars, unlikely to play more than 100 theaters), and Night Moves (female director). July offers Tammy (female star and cowriter; Bechdel likely; Melissa McCarthy to the rescue again) and Lucy (female star; decidedly nonfemale director in Luc Besson), while August has, uh, some horror movies starring women. And for June, there are two movies coming out this weekend.
This weekend is, by most accounts, shaping up to a strong one for new releases. Most of those I managed to see ahead of time—Ping Pong Summer, Trust Me, Supermensch—are middling at best, but The Fault in Our Stars (which I have seen, and about which more in a moment), Edge of Tomorrow, Obvious Child, The Sacrament, and Willow Creek are all getting good-to-great notices. Fault and Obvious seem like a particularly strong pair, not because they seem to have much in common tonally beyond a presumed sense of genre awareness (the cancer-romance-drama in Fault; the romantic comedy in Obvious) but because they look right now like the two biggest female-centric movies of the summer: Fault in Our Stars for its likely huge audience of young women, and Obvious Child for its female writer-director Gillian Robespierre and breakout star Jenny Slate.
Though The Fault in Our Star has gained, in book form, legions of fans, it’s safe to say that its audience skews female. It might have been interesting, then, to see a female filmmaker front and center in telling the story of Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a 16-year-old with terminal cancer, who meets the love of her teenage life in the form of Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor who seems to adore her from first glance. Woodley and Elgort (who play brother and sister in Divergent!) carry the movie together, but Woodley ultimately shoulders the point of view. As in the first-person-narrated novel, there are no scenes of August on his own; everything comes from Hazel.
In a way, the male director and male screenwriters fit with the movie’s fidelity to that source material: just as it’s a male author taking on Hazel’s POV in the book, it’s male filmmakers assuming it for the movie. Then again, as touching and well-acted as the movie is, it doesn’t always have a discernible point of view beyond its imitation of Green’s, giving the onscreen version of Hazel a copy-of-a-copy quality. Director Josh Boone seems beholden to the book in the manner of the (mostly) men hired to direct Twilight and Hunger Games movies.
Hardcore fans of anything can be disappointingly literal-minded, and a lot of YA adaptations are acts of enabling; rather than reassuring by example that changes to the source material can enliven and enrich the experience of watching the movie, they make sure the movie is as close as possible to the experience of reading (or, really, rereading) the book. The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t demand many changes, per se, and works well enough in the movie version. It sure would be nice, though, if that movie version cared more about being a movie; Boone so aggressively avoids a particular style in shooting simple conversations between Hazel and Augustus that these scenes have a bizarre, overcut antistyle. The coverage-heavy technique manages to call attention to the movie’s artifice while not using that artifice to transport the audience in any way; the opposite, basically, of Green’s writing, wherein teenagers often sound a little wittier than real life while still capturing the feelings behind the stylization. Boone misses the poetry for the words.
Regardless of whether someone like Gillian Robespierre would have room to put her stamp on material this popular, it seems depressingly unlikely that Robespierre will be offered the next Fault in Our Stars, or even the next Sex Tape, regardless of how well Obvious Child does this weekend in limited release (and it seems like it’s poised to go pretty huge). It’s also questionable whether Robespierre, or other female writer-directors working in a similar mode like Nicole Holofcener or Lake Bell, has any interest in that. I’m positive that there are feature gigs not offered to strong female directors for no more reason than what amounts to, at best, superstition (at worst, sexism—but as sexist as I’m sure Hollywood is, I tend to think it’s ruled by capitalistic superstition above all, hence the incantations and reincantations of sequels, ripoffs, even imitative release dates), but I’m not sure if I’d want to see Lake Bell or Jill Soloway following, say, Marc Webb, once the promising music video and 500 Days of Summer director, now keeper of the lackluster Amazing Spider-Man series for Sony. Maybe a movie like In a World or Obvious Child or Afternoon Delight is worth more than its value as a calling card.