With stylish women flaunting recessionista chic and Michelle Obama embracing her modest roots-“my parents were working class people,” she repeats in speeches-it may seem like a timely advance that a flurry of independent films (in theaters and on DVD) are depicting those forgotten heroines, working-class women. In Wendy and Lucy , a deglamorized Michelle Williams lives out of her car while driving to Alaska in search of a job. There’s Frozen River , with Melissa Leo in her Oscar-nominated role as a trailer-park single mom, and Julia , with Tilda Swinton playing a downwardly spiraling alcoholic.
These movies are unsentimental and wonderfully realistic on the surface, but take a closer look: why is every one of these heroines involved in some kind of crime? With acts as petty as shoplifting a can of dog food and as horrendous as kidnapping a child, it seems no struggling woman on screen can live inside the law. Under their admirable surfaces, these films subtly reinforce the old assumption that poor equals criminal.
The real problem is the lack of exploration into these characters’ motives. We can assume they are driven to despair and crime, that society just won’t give them a break, but that’s not the same as seeing it portrayed on screen. In Frozen River , Leo’s character, Ray, stumbles into a scheme to earn cash by driving illegal immigrants across the Canadian border. The film makes it clear that the smuggling is wrong and dangerous; we sympathize with and fear for Ray even while we disapprove. We have to take a step back to realize that director Courteney Hunt’s taut filmmaking and Leo’s nuanced performance allow the film to glide past Ray’s moral dilemma. And why didn’t Wendy ask for a job before stealing from the grocer? What possessed Julia to accept a working mother’s bribe to kidnap her child from his grandfather’s custody?
The Hollywood working-class heroine is usually a Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich, a reformer making a grand social gesture. The new indie films more authentically depict their characters’ workaday lives. That’s why it’s so disappointing to find them undermining their own heroines, reinforcing an assumption that should have been blasted away long ago-that the poor are morally suspect and quick to steal.