From Violent Avengers to Pregnant Teens, Sundance’s Women Met Obstacles Head-On

Left: Carey Mulligan stands holding a metal stick. Right: a close-up of Sidney Flanigan wearing earbuds on a train or bus.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman and Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Focus Features / Sundance

The movie I had the most interesting conversations about at the Sundance Film Festival this year wasn’t the debut of a bold new voice in American cinema, but a megaphone for a voice that’s already one of the loudest in American culture: Taylor Swift’s. Many of the people I talked to about Miss Americana, whether they went in as Swifties or skeptics, were surprised by how familiar they found the pop star’s struggle for respect and professional stability in a world where the terms on which they’re awarded are largely set by men. “I related to her as a female artist in a male-dominated industry,” said director Lana Wilson, who Swift picked for the job after watching After Tiller, the documentary Wilson and Martha Shane made about abortion providers.

Sundance’s lineup may be approaching gender parity—according to the festival, 46 percent of the directors in this year’s competition are female—but in the films themselves women faced obstacles everywhere they turned. In Zola, Janicza Bravo’s turbo-charged adaptation of a viral Twitter thread, Taylour Paige’s stripper gets shanghaied by a colleague (Riley Keough) who promises quick cash in return for a quick job in Tampa and ends up implicating her in prostitution and armed robbery. In The Assistant, an abstract, Jeanne Dielman-inflected take on the Harvey Weinstein story, Julia Garner plays a young office worker who starts to understand that her every action, from booking private jets to running off copies, implicates her in a culture of abuse. And in the documentary On the Record, the alleged victims of sexual assault and harassment by former hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons broke decades of silence and pushed through the idea that to say anything was to betray their own community.

The feature debut of Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman, came in as one of Sundance’s most anticipated titles, based in part on a trailer that depicted Carey Mulligan’s character as a sleek angel of retribution, luring would-be rapists by playing drunk in bars, then meting out vengeance when they try to take advantage. But while the movie draws on the tropes of the rape-revenge genre, in which being subjected to trauma makes women bolder and even sexier, it’s at its best when it’s subverting them rather than just finding the slickest and most pop-savvy way to repackage them. In the opening sequence, Mulligan turns the tables on Adam Brody, who acts like her savior in the bar but then detours to his apartment once he gets the sense that she won’t remember anything he does to her.

As we see her strutting down the street the next morning, the camera pans up along her stockinged legs, spattered with what we assume is Brody’s blood, until we reach her mouth and realize she’s lustily tearing into a cherry-filled treat. Like Killing Eve, on which Fennell served as showrunner for the second season, Promising Young Woman wobbles between reveling in its central character’s power and delving into the psychological damage beneath it, and the more of the latter we understand, the harder it is to go back to reveling in her mission of vengeance, especially as the toll it takes on her becomes more apparent. The movie’s ending tries to resolve that conflict, but the plot contortions it takes to do so effectively tear the movie apart, sending a message that seems antithetical to one it probably means to convey.

Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always is similarly wedded to the perspective of a single woman, in this case a high school student from central Pennsylvania who’s decided to end her pregnancy. As she navigates her small Rust Belt town, Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) is engaged in near-constant battle: At school, the boys mock-whisper “Slut” as she performs in the talent show; at the grocery store where she works, an unseen man sucks on her hand as she pushes the day’s receipts through a slot; a female doctor offers sympathy until learning she’s “abortion-minded,” then slips in a DVD of pro-life propaganda.

Eventually Autumn and her cousin decamp for New York City, but every step is a difficult one, and even the MetroCard vending machines are a puzzle to solve. Hittman keeps the camera close and the focus shallow so that the city seems loud and strange, alien if not necessarily inhospitable. In the scene that gives the movie its title, a clinic worker takes a history of Autumn’s life—not just her pregnancy but the circumstances that led to it—and Hittman stays on her face without moving or cutting away. It’s an extraordinary scene, both in its superficial simplicity and the way you realize the movie has been building towards it without needing you to notice how it does. Never Rarely will be parsed as a movie about the hoops women, particularly if they’re young and poor, have to jump through to get an abortion, and it should be. But it’s also attuned to the issue of how young women’s lives can be turned into fodder for political movements, and it resists turning Autumn into a case study. Her experience isn’t unique, but it’s hers, and Hittman never lets us forget it.