How To Find Friends and Alienate People
Why I made a film about women being friends
The refrain is always the same. “I just feel like I don’t know how connect with anyone,” someone will say to me. “I don’t know how to make friends as an adult.”
The weirdness of this week has been extreme, as my first feature as a writer/director debuted, and I got a ticket to the roller coaster of opening a movie. We got soaring praise, which felt even better than I thought it would, and searing pans, which turned out to be entirely hilarious.
But something has resonated with me in several professional and casual reviews — not something critical, not something that critics should be in trouble for or I am mad about — I want to stress that. I am honored to have been reviewed at all. We’ve been lucky to be viewed by generous people who shared ample praise, and there isn’t the faintest of sour grapes in my heart about criticism — no one knows the flaws in a movie better than the person who made it. A critic’s job is to react authentically and analytically to what they see, and I am thrilled to even be on their radar. Yet I was struck by a common idea I’ve run across again and again:
It seems pretty weird to some people that we made a movie just about women becoming friends.
It’s not unexpected; we knew setting out that WHAT LIES WEST was going to be a weird movie, in some ways the soul of conventional coming-of-age films, a genre I relish, and in some ways, including this, entirely experimental. We made a film about female friendship partially because not a lot of movies about it exist — or at least ones that don’t suggest driving off a cliff is the correct conclusion to such a radical act as experiencing life best with a platonic partner. Telling a story about two unlikely young women becoming friends seemed like a novelty. It wasn’t until after the film was shot I began seriously wondering why that is.
After all, women grow up learning exactly what movies expect of them: to fall in love. I could tell you a thousand different ways to correctly fall in love by kindergarten. My siblings only barely stopped seven year-old me from presenting handmade drawings of the tea ceremony scene in THE KARATE KID PART II that I hoped would serve as a helpful guide to the boy I currently loved. I would have gladly made him tea and took down my flowy hair before we kissed during a storm. That was what girls did. That was what we were taught was important.
When girls did something else, such as in the highly panned mid-90s movie NOW AND THEN, it wasn’t worth critical notice. The complex interrelationship of a group of four adolescent girls as they confront death, intrigue, the Vietnam war, their own parents…that wasn’t an important factor to (largely male) critics. Unless it was complicated by a love interest, the relationship between women was rarely interesting to the world at large at all.
As I prepared to make my own film about female friendship, I remember contrasting two reviews by my favorite critic, Roger Ebert, for I. Marlene King and Leslie Linka Glatter’s NOW AND THEN and Jenny Wingfield and Robert Mulligan’s THE MAN IN THE MOON. Both were childhood favorites of mine, rented and watched and rented and watched until I wore the VHS tapes out. The former is a story about how female friendship propels you into adulthood with a support net, the latter about two sisters who both fall in love with the same boy. Ebert concluded his review of NOW AND THEN with this:
What distinguished “Stand by Me” was the psychological soundness of the story: We could believe it and care about it. “Now and Then” is made of artificial bits and pieces. The director, Lesli Linka Glatter, says in the press notes that she started crying when she first read the script “because it captured that delicate evolution from girlhood to womanhood, and you so rarely find that.” I guess she didn’t see “Man in the Moon,” which has so much more truth and tenderness that it exposes “Now and Then” for what it is, a gimmicky sitcom.
It’s common wisdom to accept that MAN IN THE MOON, which gave us the glorious Reese Witherspoon, and STAND BY ME are better movies, and perhaps they are. But in contrasting Linka Glatter’s quote on the movie with Ebert’s, it seems telling to me that the key to the “truth” of female development, to Ebert, is romantic love. It is learning to cope with romantic competitiveness between women, and learning to manage the faults of disappointing, fickle men. That is the journey into adulthood that men see for women, and that too often, women see for women, too.
Which brings me back to my opening point, which is that I hear, over and over again from women, that they just don’t know how to make friends as an adult. The unfortunate truth is, they probably don’t know how to make friends — especially other women friends — at all. But when you’re in school and soccer practice and choir and gym together, under enormous pressure, you have to bond or die. Friendships that spring up in these contexts are often born of necessity and familiarity…and it is also, too, why they often fade away once the context of high school or study groups or sports end. Friendships that weather the course of life changes, marriages, babies, losses, betrayals…those are rare. And when do we ever learn how to have and sustain those?
Movies and television aren’t our only teacher, by far, but they are a highly influential one. Think of the five greatest romances you know about. How many of them were real people, and how many did you see on the screen? We are taught, over and over, thousands of times, from childhood onward, how to navigate all the ins and outs of romance by film. Romance is fertile ground for screenwriters, a constant source of tension and conflict and stakes and resolution. Romance is where we find nearly all of our female characters battling for value and meaning.
But friendship? Why is friendship, for women, not given the same exploration? Why are the betrayals and the savings of each other less poignant? Why is the conversation about whether Goofy is a dog in STAND BY ME more “psychologically sound” than the “artificial” moments when the girls of NOW AND THEN chat for a few minutes with a traumatized Vietnam Vet, not that much older than them?
Why are we perplexed, and put off, even, by the idea that the platonic relationship between young women could be dramatic fodder for a film?
In my thirties, I have been lucky. Through chance and social media, I’ve developed an actual core group of female friends. We’ve survived big blow outs, we’ve rallied to save one another, we are the open ear to every rant, the fighters for each other’s causes. We occasionally roll our eyes at each other. Despite having a happy marriage and a male best friend, my life has become infinity richer for this connection with other women, this little rebellion we have together that the world of entertainment has told us just isn’t all that interesting. We have all expressed such relief, such gratitude, at finally understanding what it feels like to have friends. Most of us spent decades fumbling for friends, too blinded by the bright and gaudy movie-screen flicker of romance to even see what a friend really looked like, let alone learn how to keep one.
WHAT LIES WEST is about the sustenance and growth that can come out of a friendship, in part because I don’t want any woman younger than me to turn 36 before she can begin to look for friends. When there’s a problematic message — and there are many — in our film canon, it’s up to filmmakers to address it, and here was a hole I felt like I could help fill. Because at the heart of it all, I am always curious when I’m told something related to women isn’t particularly compelling, and I wonder, who benefits from the idea that women are solely valuable as lovers, and only incidentally as friends?
What Lies West is available on VOD and DVD: https://linktr.ee/WhatLiesWest