2018 Feminist Highlights: Puzzle, Support the Girls, and The Kindergarten Teacher

I’m well aware that I’m taking a major risk writing this article. In fact, after what I’m about to tell you, you’ll probably think I have no right to my opinion. That in the era of #MeToo and female empowerment, a voice like mine should have no weight, and this article should be considered completely unreliable, given one simple but unavoidable fact.

I won’t be talking about The Favourite.

I know, I know – how can I possibly write an article about feminist movies in 2018 and not include The Favourite? The truth is that I did enjoy the movie, but every Buzzfeed writer and her mother have been posting about it, so why add to the collection? I’d much rather share three of my personal favorites – feminist movies that may not have as much of the spotlight as The Favourite, but which, in my experience, were just as memorable. (spoiler territory ahead)

1: Puzzle – Subverting the sports movie

First up is an adaptation of a 2010 Argentinian film. Puzzle is a deceptively simple story about a woman who discovers she is adept at working jigsaw puzzles.

We open with Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a stay-at-home mom with two adult sons. Her family is messy and overwhelming at times, but she is nominally content and makes the best of her situation. This changes when she gets a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday, finishes it in record time, and marvels at the mental sports world that she never knew existed. She meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), a competitive puzzler, and they begin training. As she invests more time training in puzzle sessions, she becomes increasingly distant from her family.

Two-thirds of the way in, the athlete-finds-talent-and-trains-for-final-tournament story is still pleasantly predictable. There’s drama when Agnes’s husband and sons learn about her secret passion (gasp), but they resolve to support her because she’s so talented. Another story beat checked off the list.

Yet for Agnes, working puzzles is not the end. It’s the means by which she begins the rest of her life. While the men in the movie obsess over whether she will win or lose the tournament, she is on an entirely different wavelength. The foundation of what defined her is cracking: her faith, her family, her home, her place in life. Puzzles have merely opened her eyes to the opportunities she has missed.

Thus, the final tournament is perhaps the most underwhelming ‘final tournament’ of a sports movie in recent memory. But that doesn’t concern us, because we care more about Agnes than the game she plays. Her victory is quickly glossed over, and not long afterwards, she walks away from everything and starts over.

Fifty years ago, portraying a housewife walking away from her responsibilities would have been scandalous. Now it’s empowering, because we, like Agnes, have come to understand that humans need autonomy. And yet, it’s not a message of ‘abandon the people you care about’, which would be irresponsible. Agnes, being exceptionally sensitive, has put her affairs in order, even down to the last piece of broken glass. She has been working this puzzle for decades, so she makes sure every piece is in place, and that nobody will suffer in her absence. With the picture complete, her story reminds us that it’s acceptable to take a step back, admire the finished product, and then start the next puzzle without feeling guilty.

2: Support the Girls – Subverting the slice-of-life dramedy

In contrast to the slow, deliberate construction of Puzzle, Support the Girls is a rambunctious, vibrant, and above all loud feminist dramedy. The story follows a day in the life of Lisa Conroy (the superb Regina Hall), who is the manager of a Hooters-esque sports bar; alongside her are Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) and Danyelle (Shayna McHale), two of the employees.

The film works on a number of levels. It’s a day-in-the-life mosaic that slowly builds the context of a remarkably inhabited world. It’s a commentary on sexism and racism in small town America. It’s a comedy/drama that accurately captures the highs and lows of running a business. And it’s a character study about a passionate woman who is the glue that holds her community together.

As the protagonist, Hall at first appears too perfect. She never runs out of energy, and there isn’t a single problem she can’t fix. Her only flaw, it seems, is being stressed – and given what she puts up with, who can blame her? As the day progresses, we realize that she is, in fact, a remarkable woman, and the way she handles the constant slings and arrows of misfortune is inspiring. She is the type of person you would see on Undercover Boss – not as the one undercover, but as the one who is rewarded for being so endearing and underappreciated.

Unfortunately, her direct supervisor has had it with her unconventional style – again. We learn that he’s tried to fire her numerous times, and every time she ignores him and keeps working. Until today. Today, she’s finally hit her limit, so she quits. And as with Agnes, I found her decision to be a sigh of relief, because she of all people deserves a break.

However, I was acutely aware that this was still a movie, and that her resignation was not the endpoint. My theory was: without her the restaurant would devolve into chaos; she would be called back to fix all the problems; her supervisor would appreciate her and would grudgingly give her a raise; and life would go back to the way it was, except everybody would love her even more after she saved the day.

What actually happened? Without her the restaurant devolved into chaos. And it closed down for the night, because she wasn’t there to fix it. It may seem like a letdown, but I found the twist vindicating. It proved that Lisa was, in fact, the glue that held everything together. The movie is a startling encouragement to the Lisas of the world: if you ever feel like things would fall apart without you, guess what – they probably will. And maybe that’s okay. The movie is a love letter to leaders, specifically women, that you do matter, and that you can take a break, even if everything goes to hell when you leave. As for the rest of us who often take them for granted, the title alone reminds us what our role should be.

3: The Kindergarten Teacher – Subverting the thriller

Ah, another foreign film adaptation: The Kindergarten Teacher is based on a 2014 Israeli film, and stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as… a kindergarten teacher! Maggie plays Lisa (I just noticed the connection!), in what is effectively the opposite of Hall’s character. This Lisa is competent at her job, but not exceptional. Her only outlet is a creative writing class, otherwise her life is dreary. The film firmly establishes Lisa’s desperation for something, anything, to add some color to her world.

Enter Parker Sevak as Jimmy Roy, one of Lisa’s students. Lisa discovers that Jimmy is a poetry prodigy whose verses are profoundly simple and mesmerizingly original. Reinvigorated, Lisa begins pouring into Jimmy’s life. In her mind, Jimmy is like a great composer, and it’s her duty to nurture his gift so he can blossom into a talented, truly iconic artist whose legacy will-

But wait. Jimmy is only five or six years old. Lisa, frustratingly aware of this fact, is nonetheless determined to take care of him. At first, this is a mere obsession, which is nothing more than mildly disconcerting. We empathize with Lisa after all, and the worst she does is pass off Jimmy’s work as her own. But the relationship inches to the edge of unnervingly romantic as Lisa’s obsession spirals into insanity.

The tension builds with each interaction, as Lisa is increasingly desperate to harvest Jimmy’s talent, and Jimmy is increasingly trusting of Lisa. If the genders were reversed, the cops probably would have been alerted the moment the child spent the night at the teacher’s house (which Jimmy does). But who would suspect a woman, right? The stereotype of women being ‘safer’ around kids heightens the suspense, because the audience can see a danger that the characters can’t. When Lisa sneaks Jimmy out of the playground, takes him swimming, then checks into a hotel room with him, nobody around her bats an eye, even though the audience’s heart is beating out of its chest.

Ultimately, Lisa is caught, the tension diffused, and Jimmy is safe – and then, in one of the most genuinely shocking twists I’ve seen all year, the filmmaker cues us in to her perspective on Lisa’s obsession. Suffice to say, this is a prime example of structuring a nail-biting thriller around a mundane concept, one which thrives on gender assumptions that we rarely think twice about. It’s oddly refreshing to see the crazed kidnapper played by a jaded female teacher, one who is made all the more terrifying thanks to the gendered expectations the genre has drilled into us.