Don’t let the title fool you. “Women is Losers” is a winner - one of the best films of 2021 that you never heard of. It is a unique testament to the strength and resilience of women of color. Flying under the streaming radar, it is an indie gem that made some of the film festival circuit, including the Mill Valley Film Festival. Debut writer/director Lissette Feliciano creates a world in 1960s San Francisco in which her protagonist, Celina (Lorenza Izzo), a once dutiful Catholic high school girl, becomes inspired to make more of her life than her social limitations dictate. Her plans initially get derailed when both she and her best friend become pregnant. When her friend becomes the tragic victim of an unsafe abortion, Celine decides to move forward with her pregnancy, with little to no support from her parents or the young father who has recently returned from Vietnam and found himself in another relationship. Not surprisingly, being a single Latina mother, makes obtaining higher education and financial success seem all but impossible.
Despite these educational and emotional setbacks, Celina remains determined to get away from her abusive father’s household, break her family’s cycle of poverty, and make a better life for herself and her son. It would seem that her new bank teller job could be the launch pad to better things, especially when Gilbert (Simu Liu), the bank manager seemingly takes an interest in her professionally and offers free financial advice and career advancement. Ultimately, his motives become suspect and he proves more of a hindrance than a help, with his sexual advances and professional threats, but Celina finds a way to make use of the wisdom he has already imparted.
On the surface, the premise of “Women is Losers” could seem a downer, but such is not the case. This is largely due to the presentation and execution which is uplifting, creative and wholly engaging. More than all that, it is unexpected. Feliciano knows when to turn up the drama, without being depressing, but she also knows when to be poignant without being sappy or melodramatic. Likewise, she unabashedly weaves in politics and social issues, using the opportunity to educate the audience as well as entertain. All the while she seems self aware that this is a small film, with a small budget that can take creative chances. Shot entirely in San Francisco, she also wonderfully enlists cinematic and editing techniques similar to Adam McKay, a la “The Big Short.” This includes fast takes, talking to the camera, and asides with graphics and information about politics and history.
The little-known to unknown cast are solidly good, with a notable performance by Izzo in the lead. She’s in almost every frame holding her own with gusto and a wry sense of humor that’s a sheer delight! Although she has other roles under her belt, this should serve as a fantastic “calling card” project for her, with hopes of seeing her in much, much more. Also impressive, is her co-star, Chrissy Fit, who plays her best friend, Marty. Chrissy is best known for her small comic relief role in “Pitch Perfect.” For “Women is Losers,” she makes the most of her brief screen time, and really shows her acting range. While this film touches, sometimes explores, sensitive topics, like domestic violence, racism and sexism, it manages to be interesting and life-affirming. It’s well-worth seeking out and spreading the word about.
Available through HBO Max.
Writer/Director: Lissette Feliciano
Stars: Lorenza Izzo, Chrissie Fit, Liza Weil, Simu Liu
Language: English and Spanish
Production Company: Bowery Hills Entertainment
MPAA Rating: ?
Run Time: 1:24 min
Jumping off of critical acclaim and into arthouse theaters around the country, is one of the audience favorites from the Mill Valley Film Festival’s World Cinema category in 2021- “Drive My Car” by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. This deeply felt, observant film is adapted from a short story in Murakami Haruki’s “Men Without Women” collection. Two years after the sudden death of his wife, actor-director, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who has been understandably inactive, lonely and depressed, is requested to direct a production of “Uncle Vanya” for an annual theater festival in Hiroshima. After driving there in his vintage Saab, he is told that it is mandatory he be chauffeured in his car. Although he is initially resistant to turn over his keys of his beloved car to Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), the young female driver assigned to him, he eventually relents after acknowledging that she is undeniably an excellent driver and a kind and respectful companion.
Throughout the play’s audition process and rehearsals, Yusuke and the film’s audience, get to know the play’s unusual ensemble, which includes Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a young, handsome TV star, with limited experience and range that Yusuke oddly cast in the lead role usually reserved for middle-aged actors like himself. No one is more surprised and daunted by the casting than the young actor who was selected. Was this a set-up for failure? Given that it is revealed (to the audience) that the director recognizes Koji as having had some sort of romantic connection to Yusuke’s late wife, his motivations are suspect.
Over the course of the several weeks production, tensions rise among cast, director and producers. While relations in the rehearsal studio are sometimes fraught, conversely, a friendly, almost father-daughter type bond develops between Yusuke and his shy and quiet driver. She has become a bit of a respite to Yusuke’s theatrical challenges and emotional hauntings from the loss of his wife. During a spontaneous road trip the two take to Koji’s home village she left several years ago while also fleeing her own set of emotional demons, Yusuke is forced to reckon with painful truths about he and his wife’s relationship, and his future emotional well being. His accepting the director’s position, along with the unlikely pairing of Yusuke with Koji as friend and driver, proves to be exactly what he needed to launch him on a path of actual recovery.
“Drive My Car” is a slow moving and wonderful story, beautifully observed and executed, with love, loss and life at its core. The two lead performances are pitch perfect, along with a commendable and entertaining supporting cast. While the movie is about 30 to 40 minutes longer than necessary, it is wholly engaging and worth experiencing in your local arthouse theater or on streaming platforms.
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Writer (s): Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Haruki Murakami (short story)
Stars: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, Masaki Okada
Official Site: https://www.janusfilms.com/films/2040
Language: Japanese with subtitles
Run Time: 179 minutes