Female Trouble

The absence of good movie roles for women has been bemoaned in the press so many times over the past few years that film critics might as well store a prototype version of such an article in their hard drives and assign it a function key.

Clearly, the solution doesn't lie within Hollywood's power corridors, a Lewis Carrollish netherworld in which expensive failures starring men are written off as errors of direction, scriptwriting, marketing or timing, while expensive failures starring women are seen as evidence that "chick movies" don't sell.

Slamming headfirst against the industry's testosterone force field often doesn't get women filmmakers, writers and performers anywhere, unless your name is Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron, Whoopi Goldberg or Meryl Streep -- or you're willing to define your career by a wide-screen crotch shot like Sharon Stone, or swap your feminist credentials for the lead in a soft-core stripper movie for $12.5 million, à la Demi Moore.

It often makes better sense to go around the wall -- like the makers of Party Girl and The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. Both projects are funded independently, star relatively unknown performers and mark the debuts of auspiciously talented women filmmakers who've spent the last few years doing industry grunt work. If either movie were pitched to Griffin Mill, the studio executive from The Player, it wouldn't even rate a follow-up call. One's a broad slapstick comedy, and the other is a sensitive coming-of-age romance. But they share an idiosyncratic, defiantly personal quality. Films as special as these can't be made by committee.

The more accessible of the two is Party Girl, a New York romp from filmmaker Daisy von Scherler Mayer about a bratty hedonist named Mary (Parker Posey, best known as the leader of the hazing-crazy senior girls in Dazed and Confused). Her objective in life is simple: work just enough to be able to party.

Mary is so mind-bendingly self-involved that she seems to exist in a separate, closed-off dimension. Only her cheerful charisma prevents us from writing her off as a whining, selfish troublemaker and a borderline sociopath. (When Mary throws an illegal rent party that's raided by the cops for selling liquor without a license, she tries to convince the arresting officer, who's Asian, that the shindig is actually a fundraiser for impoverished children in Chinatown.)

As a sketch of Manhattan's downtown club life, the film ranges from amusing to hilarious. A half-dozen supporting oddballs drift in and out of the narrative, including Mary's DJ pal Leo (Guillermo Diaz), who thinks providing booty-grooving turntable riffs is the height of cultural genius; Derrick (Anthony DeSando), Mary's nerdishly hip gay pal; Rene (Donna Mitchell), a club owner who's still nursing wounds caused by her ill-fated romance with a house music impresario; and a struggling Lebanese falafel vendor named Mustafa (Omar Townsend), who has the young Brando's jaw-dropping good looks. Mary is smitten with Mustafa, of course, and visits his stand so often that her usual order becomes a kind of mantra: "I'd like a falafel with hot sauce, a seltzer and a side order of babakanoush."

Poised somewhere between selfishness and sweetness, Parker Posey plays Mary as a well-bred semidelinquent. She understands what makes Mary's myopia funny: Mary believes, in her heart, that whatever she wants is what everyone else wants, too. The discrepancy between Mary's social-climbing aspirations and her vaguely sorority-girlish idea of a good time is hilarious. She wants to be taken as sophisticated, but she's amazingly base in her desires: to date handsome guys, wear great clothes and dance herself dizzy. Posey's performance suggests what Mary Tyler Moore's Laura Petrie, the frazzled heroine of The Dick Van Dyke Show, might have become if she'd moved to New York and become an alcoholic Andy Warhol groupie.

The film has the structure of a morality tale but none of the boring self-righteousness. At the start of the picture, Mary's librarian godmother bails her out of jail and offers her the chance to work off her debt at the public library. Judy insists Mary learn the Dewey decimal system, show up to work on time and enter Alcoholics Anonymous.

Mary keeps relapsing into her old, reckless, freewheeling behavior, but she isn't forced by the screenplay to learn improbably hard lessons from it. She just chalks up her more embarrassing debacles to bad judgment and moves on. She's a somewhat healthier person at the end of the movie, but the script doesn't make a big deal about it; it doesn't make her atone for any sins, either real or perceived. Mary never abandons her droll sense of humor, and she never quits partying. She just finds ways to incorporate the two into her newer, less glamorous life.

For instance, when Mary decides to seek help for her drinking problem, the movie doesn't force us to endure the too-familiar movie ritual of AA meetings. The film's glancing treatment of the process is represented by a shot of Mary poking her head through the door on her first day, waving hello to the AA members within, and coughing melodramatically at the smoke from their cigarettes. The filmmakers assume we can figure out the rest of this process on our own, and they're right.

Later, when Mary locks herself in the library and spends all night obsessively filing books away to learn the Dewey decimal system, she doesn't suddenly become a goody two-shoes drudge. She turns the process into an elaborate dance routine, shimmying across floors and tabletops and up and down ladders and shelves; she turns work into a party.

Party Girl isn't a masterwork of social observation. It's just a solid comedy that realizes it's okay to entertain viewers without instructing them, too. It's a party of a movie that doesn't leave you feeling hung over.

The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love is an awfully long title for such a short, simple movie.

Fans of John Duigan's 1990 film Flirting will probably recognize the plot: two wise-beyond-their-years teenagers, one black and one white, fall into a taboo-breaking romance that sets their peers and parental figures on edge and pushes them to the brink of public scorn.

Things are even more complicated in this movie because the two lovebirds are young women. One is Randy Dean (Laurel Holloman), a slender, redheaded white girl who lives in a ramshackle house with an extended family of older lesbians. The other is Evie Roy (Nicole Parker), a gorgeous African-American from a well-to-do home who's one of the most popular kids in school.

Both girls are smart as whips, which is why they're instantly attracted to each other. But while Randy is certain she's a lesbian, Evie knows only that she's drawn to Randy. Evie has a mother who's concerned with appearances, a boyfriend who doesn't understand why Evie doesn't like getting physical and a future that presumably includes college, travel, marriage and buppiehood. Randy is a wrench tossed into the well-oiled machine of her existence. Evie might be fond of poetry, but she doesn't have a true poet's ability to toss propriety aside and embrace reckless, random experience.

But refreshingly, although she rides a bike, has short hair, talks tough and knows her way around a bed, Randy isn't a cartoon life force. She's an introverted, troubled girl who needs Evie to help her put her life into context, to help her navigate through the thicket of her own confused feelings. These girls are obviously meant for each other. If only the world around them felt the same way.

Love conquers all, of course, though the lessons learned by the girls are bittersweet. Both Evie's mother, a brilliant black academic, and Randy's surrogate family, a working-class gaggle of proud white lesbians, discover they aren't nearly as tolerant as they claim to be. But although it has points to make, the picture doesn't hammer them home. First-time writer/director Maria Maggenti has come up with a beguilingly understated movie that manages to capture both the heat and weird awkwardness of first love.

As is to be expected from any first film, there are certain elements that don't quite work. One is the verbal interplay among the various women in Randy's household; it often seems earthy-bitchy in a calculated, rather stage-bound way. Another is Randy's misguided affair with an older, well-off, sexually insatiable woman named Wendy who sometimes comes to her rescue with infusions of affection, advice and cash. The overbearingly wacky performer who plays her, Maggie Moore, seems to be acting in a different movie, and the subplot itself is amazingly dull.

The picture's chief virtue is its calm, reflective pacing, which allows us to bask in every moment the girls spend together and to savor the nuances of two exceptionally fine lead performances. Neither Holloman nor Parker ever makes a false move. Thanks to their confidence, Two Girls in Love doesn't have the rushed, overhyped, anecdotal quality that sinks most teen romances. Maggenti actually lets us hang around with her two young lovers for long moments in which they aren't doing or saying much of anything.

That might amount to the filmmaker's greatest inspiration: when you think back on your first love, it often isn't the torrid notes you remember, or the midnight gropings. It's the absolute stillness of desire, the ability of you and your lover to will yourselves into a state of free-floating sensuality in which nothing matters but the person sitting beside you. It's a serenity borne of complete (if deluded) confidence -- the conviction that this fantastic feeling of total cosmic rightness will never grow old, never die.

Party Girl.
Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer. With Parker Posey and Omar Townsend.
Rated R.
98 minutes.

The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.
Directed by Maria Maggenti. With Laurel Holloman and Nicole Parker.
Rated R.
95 minutes.


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