Barbara Loden wrote her gritty 1971 character study Wanda -- the harrowing tale of a woman drifter who hooks up with a controlling crook and reluctantly learns the methods of a petty criminal -- as a kind of alternate version of her own life, imagining a her who had stayed in rural North Carolina and not cultivated her acting talent. (She's best known for her role in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass.) Shot with a crew of four on 16 mm, the film is a gritty, stripped-down character piece, featuring Loden herself as Wanda and Michael Higgins as the thief, Mr. Dennis, alongside a cast of expressive and peculiar non-actors. Many scenes are single shots spanning multiple minutes, as we watch Wanda drift through life in the company of an insecure man who longs to dominate anyone or anything. Right before our eyes, Loden, the star and director, shrewdly paces the action and dialogue, which is both unexpected and yet totally natural. Half the time, Wanda passively agrees with anything a man says. She's a child in a woman's body, expecting the best out of people and never learning the lesson.
Loden never romanticizes the crime spree. She said in interviews that her movie was the anti-Bonnie and Clyde, as close as she could get to the experience she had of living in poverty in a depressed Southern town. But don't mistake Wanda for a bore or a weepfest. The only movie Loden would write or direct -- she did try to get financing for another one for eight years -- this drama is absorbing and thought-provoking the whole way through.