At the top of my best-of list is Pin Cushion, from British debut director Deborah Haywood. Is it possible to classify a story as whimsical if there are such jagged edges to it? Hunchbacked mother Lyn (Joanna Scanlon) moves her teenage daughter Iona (Lily Newmark) to a new town for a fresh start. There’s no discussion of what happened in the place they left, but Lyn is hopeful, shuffling off to buy groceries and look through the pet-store windows at all the kittens. In their shabby living room that Lyn is painting bright pink, mother and daughter construct a little dance that ends in hugs. It’s the picture of innocence. But Iona is clearly too old to be her mum’s best friend. She falls in with the mean girls of her new school and becomes entranced by them; the first time she applies lipstick, multi-colored confetti falls in slow motion around her.
At its core, this is a story about bullying and mental illness and being disconnected from reality. Lyn thinks she’s made friends in the neighborhood, but these women tell her to her face that she’s so ugly that she makes them sick. Meanwhile, under the mean girls’ spell, Iona turns cruel, ultimately bringing about both her and her mother’s downfall — Iona’s the princess who leaves the castle and breaks their spell. The hazy visual style and lush greens and saturated flower colors of Haywood’s film are reminiscent of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia painting, which is a clue from the start that Lily and Iona will meet with tragedy.
Mexican writer/director Issa López is one of the most revered women in film south of the border. Her third feature as director, Tigers Are Not Afraid, is a kind of gritty fairy tale set in a Mexican village that’s quickly becoming a ghost town because of the Huasca cartel gang killing anyone who gets in their way. López asks the question: What happens to the children when their parents go missing? The result is a scary yet sometimes fanciful story of a little girl, Estrella, who bands together with some street orphans to try to beat the violent Huasca at their own games of murder. Like a princess who’s guided on her journey by a kind of fairy godmother, Estrella’s mother’s ghost whispers to her and sometimes physically manifests as a kind of zombie woman wrapped in plastic. She’s often presented in a manner reminiscent of a children’s storybook — the style of this film is almost like a dirtied-up Guillermo del Toro flick.
You want to root for these kids to win; they’re clever and spirited and up against the bullies. But the film’s greatest emotional blow hits when you realize that there are actually towns like these with thousands of people disappeared all over Mexico right now. By telling this story through the children’s eyes with a magical-realism element, López makes the tragically unthinkable somehow more palatable, just as del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth did, where fairies and horned demons supplant some of the real-life violence that befalls the characters.
Also in the fairy tale realm, the Brazilian film Good Manners, from co-directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, tells the story of lonely out-of-work nurse Clara (Isabél Zuaa), who takes a job with a young pregnant woman, Ana (Marjorie Estiano). Ana is mercurial, sometimes bratty and never ashamed that her pregnancy was the result of a one-night stand with a mysterious man. Her father has set her up with a posh apartment, but she has no friends to speak of, so Clara — who can’t even afford to pay her rent — morphs in a matter of days from Ana’s nurse to her closest confidante. But soon Clara realizes that Ana’s strange somnambulist spells coincide with full moons. And when Clara tracks down her missing friend one night, she finds Ana covered in blood, dazed, biting into a stray cat.
Rojas and Dutra consistently surprise with a story that seems to be about an unlikely friendship between two women, then centers on the burgeoning madness of Ana as she succumbs to her desire for Clara, and then twists again to an unnerving werewolf tale that explores themes of motherhood and otherness, sometimes suggesting a retelling of Frankenstein. But with a werewolf. And yet for all the blood and gore, this is a quiet, gentle story from the perspective of Clara, an outsider looking for connection and finding it in a furry beast.
I’m not sure what’s driven these particular filmmakers to the fairy tale genre, but they all reinvent old tropes through a hyper focus on rich female characters who are messy and uncontained. In essence, these are stories about wildness crashing up against the rigid and moral societal rules placed upon women.