The Best Movies of the Year Celebrate Female Nonconformists

These women are living on their own terms, annihilating expectations, and forming their own resistance in a world that is hell-bent on catering to standards set by men.

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Courtesy Sundance

To exist as women in the world today is to live in a constant state of conflict: We love and cherish a country in which we’re consistently told we’re less than; we work hard to be part of industries that elevate our male colleagues over us; we praise movies that erase our voices. We disrupt society’s course simply by having an identity that is in contention with the spaces we occupy. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, women filmmakers brought these unique experiences to the forefront in new films that highlight the constant duality of our lives and boldly confront cultural and societal expectations for us. These stories are paving the way for a new crop of female nonconformists—and it's imperative you see them this year.

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1 Late Night
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Courtesy Sundance/Emily Aragones

Mindy Kaling, who wrote one of the year's most talked-about movies, Late Night, told the Sundance crowd that she decided to pen the script, about a woman (played by herself) who gets a job on an all-white and all-male late night TV show, because she knows what it’s like to be “both a fan and an outsider” in a space she’s passionate about. For Kaling, who wrote many episodes of The Office and created and starred on The Mindy Project, it’s comedy. Though the film, directed by Nisha Ganatra, is not autobiographical, there are plenty of resonating scenes, including one where her character, Molly, says something like this to her entitled coworker: “I may be a diversity hire, but at least I beat out hundreds of minority candidates for this role. You just had to be born.” This is the kind of retort so many of us wish we could say to the men who’ve dared to doubt our credibility and talent in spaces they wrongfully think they own. Kaling and Ganatra are making it okay to say out loud that we don’t need male permission to exist anywhere.

In theaters now. Get tickets

2 The Farewell
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Courtesy Sundance

Writer/director Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical dramedy The Farewell confronts cultural expectations through the eyes of Billi (Awkwafina), a young New Yorker who, like many of us, is desperately clinging to her independence despite barely affording her living expenses. Her carefree, millennial American lifestyle is shaken upon hearing the news that her grandmother in China, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), is dying. Billi’s the last of her family to learn about her grandmother's fate because her parents believe that as an American, she wouldn’t be able to suppress her emotions and would break her family’s tradition of keeping the diagnosis a secret from Nai Nai for as long as possible. Though she delights in her family’s meat pies and smoothly slips into Mandarin when she visits in an attempt to maintain the charade, Billi is conflicted by her western desire to grieve openly. So she confronts her family with a heartfelt plea to tell Nai Nai so she can say goodbye in a way she was unable to with her grandfather, who "vanished" when she was a child (in reality, he got sick and died). The Farewell simply and beautifully gives a woman who in many ways lives on the fringes of two different cultures permission to interrogate what matters to her most.

In theaters July 12. Get tickets

3 Hala
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Courtesy

In writer/director Minhal Baig’s coming-of-age drama Hala, the conflict is more internal. Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) is a Muslim-American high school senior whose parents tell her not to talk to boys, not to wear revealing clothing, and to get married to a nice, educated Muslim man of their choice. She’s been hearing this her whole life from the people she trusts and loves most, inside a culture that is inherently her own. But it's not until she starts dating a white guy from class that she begins to realize how much of her identity and femininity has been stifled by the traditions imposed upon her. This awakening compels her to dissent in ways both exhilarating and frightening—like confronting her dad’s infidelity, tossing her hijab, and having sexual agency. Most profoundly, though, Baig’s heartfelt story, inspired by her own experiences, is about a young woman caught between two worlds and choosing herself above all else.

Coming soon from Apple+.

4 Selah and the Spades
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Courtesy

The title character in Selah and the Spades, written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, isn’t so much straddling identities as she is flouting the very concept of the binary notions that so often attempt to harnass women. As star Lovie Simone says, “Selah just is.” She’s the leader of The Spades, an underground faction at a boarding school, and is her own moral standard. Depending on who you ask, she can be your worst enemy—she sends her right-hand man (Jharrel Jerome) unknowingly to his own beating when he dares to elevate another woman in his life—or your best friend, like offering the new girl (Celeste O’Connor) a space next to her on the throne. Selah isn’t exactly sexually promiscuous (she’s never had sex), but she's quick to say that she's in full command of her body, refusing to submit to the male-inflicted stereotypes of Madonna and whore. She freely struts around in a pleated cheerleader skirt and fitted crop top, embodying a sense of power and brazen femininity that both captivates and intimidates. Selah is a defiant contradiction of assumptions placed on women, and that's what makes her story—as well as Hala’s, Billi’s, and Molly’s—so provocative. These women are living on their own terms, annihilating expectations, and forming their own resistance in a world that is hell-bent on catering to standards set by men. It’s 2019, after all, and this is the mood we need to take into the rest of the year and beyond. Let's go.

See it in Brooklyn on June 16. Get tickets

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