By Heidi Philipsen
Why is it that when men make poignant films about a male’s coming-of-age, they are allowed to explore the pain, heartache, betrayal, danger, and the need for getting even or choosing a lesser evil to right a wrong—while women-centric films are expected to carry out a fairy tale romance?
Though I’ve been acting ever since the school musical Twelve Dancing Princesses gave me something to do with my pre-pubescent angst, it wasn’t until after I had established myself as a freelance cultural journalist abroad and had an out-of-body experience interviewing Shirley MacClaine at the Berlin International Film Festival that I decided to follow my dreams to act, write, produce and direct.
So, it’s a pretty big deal that my debut feature film, Darcy, as co-director and producer, will have its world premiere at the Twin Cities Film Fest in Minneapolis, Minnesota on October 24th
Written by Jon Russell Cring (who also co-directs) and Tracy Cring (also the director of photography), Darcy is the story of a teenage girl, growing up in “Nowhereland, USA” with her parents who run a third-rate motel on the wrong side of the tracks and the outcasts of society that live there because they have nothing else and nowhere else to go.
“The American Dream” is illusive & far away for the people living at the Utopia Pines Motel – and yet Darcy, played by young rising actress Gus Birney (TV’s The Mist), daughter of Connie Schulman of (Orange is the New Black) and Reed Birney (House of Cards), in all of her youthful naiveté, doesn’t let that stop her from dreaming via her mother’s historical romance novels to escape into innocent fantasies of tall, dark, heroic and handsome strangers.
And then, as one might predict, a tall, dark, handsome stranger with a smile and helping hand enters her world. But he is no hero.
Many women I’d met in the process of making this movie quickly caught on to the film’s scenario and understood the narrative. However, the men I spoke with were baffled as to how this story could mirror the lives of girls developing into womanhood.
And when it came to testing the film and getting ready to submit for film festivals, I was told to change the narrative. “Whatever you do, it has to be a happy note.”
Well, this being my first film and feeling insecure about our original choices, we changed the tone. We even shelved a whole string of scenes and recreated a traditional “Hollywood” scenario, complete with kitsch and feel-good opium for the masses.
Test audiences hated it. Honestly, I didn’t blame them. It felt dishonest and integrally wrong.
Why force happiness when it’s not genuine? Is that really all that they want? The dismal performance of the same-old action blockbusters at the box office of late could be interpreted as “no.”
I understand the history of cinema in America and the genesis of the man-made vision of “…and they lived happily ever after” and why it’s so important, on a marketing scale, to bring in audiences. And yet, we can have violent horror, thriller and action movies with men (and more often now, women) creating havoc on the physical scale.
We can even jump into the sea of unresolved melancholic emotions when male protagonists recall their own coming-of-age in celluloid storytelling. But the true emotional gray zone and the authentic quagmires of female teen developing into womanhood—with all that entails—is somehow not acceptable unless there is some sort of delusional happy ending in it for her.
It’s no wonder that female characters have been given nothing but supporting roles when the only emotions they are given to feel are fear, relief and, ultimately, hollow, Prozac-infused happiness.
Perhaps the creative team and I wanted to make the statement that we, as women, are not at a happy ending within our place in this world as of yet. Maybe it’s an artistic sledgehammer to say, “these things happened to our protagonist, Darcy, it’s not okay, and – yes, she will move on in the plotline – but maybe… not… yet.”
So this moment has been a long-time coming—with all the twists and turns in its post-production and marketing strategy plotting, I can’t wait to gather the audience reaction of Darcy on the eve of October 24th.
What a wonderful feeling it would be to know that by staying true to our original narrative, we finally found our place in cinema and our audience’s hearts.
Now, that would a real “happy ending,” indeed.
Heidi Philipsen is an actress, producer, writer and director with 25 years in the industry, from international broadcast journalism, to print, to narrative film and TV, and proud member of New York Women in Film & Television. Her debut feature Darcy, on which she served as producer, co-director and actress, will have its World Premiere on Oct. 24th at the Twin Cities Film Fest.