"This is a bit of a feminist moment, pushing back at the commercial, hyper-sexual model of teen girls that has prevailed," argues a professor in an LA Times story citing True Grit and Winter's Bone, among others. What's going on?
Last year, the women-in-film awards discussion focused on Kathryn Bigelow and Precious; this year, you could argue that while there's momentum behind "older" (by Hollywood standards) actresses (Tilda Swinton, the stars of The Kids Are All Right), there's even more excitement about a crop of much-younger actresses, many of them barely in their teens, who are playing challenging, nuanced roles. (That said, my Oscar money's on Natalie Portman.)
Of Ree, the character played by Jennifer Lawrence, David Denby wrote in The New Yorker, "She's not just the most interesting teenager around, she's more believable as a heroic character than any of the men we've seen peacocking through movies recently. In its lived-in, completely non-ideological way, Winter's Bone is one of the great feminist works in film."
And that film's director, Debra Granik, told The LA Times, "People are finding these heroines charismatic, unexpected and fresh. What a person in the business can get from that is, 'Hey, a young female protagonist doesn't need to have a boyfriend, get pregnant, cut herself or be naked to attract an audience.' " The story also reveals that she's writing a treatment of Pippi Longstocking (!).
The Times author is perhaps unduly optimistic, describing "a film industry in which young women are infiltrating traditionally male genres like action films; female directors and producers are wielding increasing creative influence, and the culture is moving from a sexed-up, dumbed-down model of female adolescence to one marked by smarts, strength and scrap."
Female directors and writers did do well this year, including with Granik, The Kids Are All Right, and Please Give (which sadly seems to have no awards buzz). And Deadline Hollywood Daily noted back in November that if the best actress pool was looking extra strong this year, "One key reason could be that some of the top contenders like Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, and Tilda Swinton also took the reins of their projects and moonlighted as producers in order to shepherd difficult material that might never have made it to the screen otherwise." But they still represent a tiny minority of projects and budgets, and primarily are the smaller or mid-range films that get awards attention but smaller audiences.
Happily, a high-profile film with some rather prominent men behind it has also managed to have a refreshing portrayal of a much-younger girl — namely, True Grit with Hailee Steinfeld's character. Whereas the 1969 adaption made the character of Mattie older so they could add a romantic plotline, this Mattie "never shakes out her braids in a makeover montage, swoons over a cute stable boy or frets about the daunting task at hand tracking down the man who shot her father."
If the young women and girls playing these parts have anything in common, it's uncommon self-possession and maturity. (Is it uncommon by now if Dakota Fanning is already considered their foremother?) Here are several of in the January issue of W, including Abigail Breslin, Chloe Grace Moretz, and more. (Hey, where's Kiernan Shipka? Not enough silver screen time?).
Glancing at the photos, one realizes another "trend" of this year's breakout actresses: They're all white.
Update: Wikipedia describes Hailee Steinfeld's mother as "of Filipino, African-American and European-American descent." Her maternal grandfather is Filipino. Her father is Jewish.