Monday 19 July 2021

Postcards from the edge: "Girlfriends"

The New American Cinema of the 1970s tends to be regarded, with some justification, as an almost exclusively male arena, in which a succession of angry or otherwise driven young punks wrung their hands or gnashed their teeth at the failure of the American project.
1978's Girlfriends might, then, be seized upon as a counterpoint, a small pocket of resistance: an indie comedy-drama, written by Vicki Polon and directed by Claudia Weill, which charts the vacillations and insecurities of a pair of creatively minded female flatmates, plotting divergent courses, at differing speeds, through a pre-gentrified New York. Would-be writer Anne (Anita Skinner) does the "sensible" thing in rushing into domesticity with no less a figure than Bob Balaban, only to find that motherhood can stifle the muse. She leaves behind aspirant photographer Susan (Melanie Mayron), who meanders from gallery to gallery in search of a show for herself, shrugging off the affections of nice guy Christopher Guest to commence an ill-advised fling with married fiftysomething rabbi Eli Wallach.

What follows is a series of flakily awkward passive-aggressive encounters, of a variety that would later be fleshed out by Lena Dunham over several seasons of HBO's Girls. (Unable to gain a lasting foothold in the movie business, Weill proceeded into small-screen work, overseeing episodes of Cagney & Lacey, Thirtysomething and Caroline in the City before directing a second-season episode of the Dunham show.) Collectively, these encounters suggest the effects the first wave of modern feminism had on two twentysomething women at street level, struggling to find any kind of space in the world for themselves. It's certainly episodic, but Polon and Weill are alert to many of the tensions that have been known to exist within all-girl relationships, and the charming performers tide you over: sharing post-coital conversation about the mumps, Mayron and Guest make a particularly sweet couple, and you can't miss the affection with which the film nudges them towards mutual happiness. Rough-edged but funny, and still a revealing document of its moment.

Girlfriends returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

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