RECOMMENDATIONS: 4 Great Indies with Strong Female Leads


The Netflix suggestion service is profoundly puzzling sometimes. Its system of sub-dividing its library into weirdly specific genres (think Dark and Quirky Sci-Fi Movies) seems to be picking up on the most obscure qualities of my watching habits, and offering up titles I have absolutely no interest in. And I know I’m far from the only user to experience it.

But I can’t fault the streaming service for one of the categories it suggested for me: “Critically-Acclaimed Independent Movies with a Strong Female Lead”. Even though their list presents a very specific selection of films, it’s led me to check out a number of powerful movies from the past few years. They’re stories that profile flawed, fascinating women, which soundly reject the stereotypical female role in Hollywood productions.

So to borrow a play from Netflix, below you’ll find a list of 4 standout indies that I thoroughly encourage you to check out – especially if you’re looking for something that opposes the average macho action flick.

Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass star in 'Safety Not Guaranteed'

1. Safety Not Guaranteed

Admittedly, this is a movie that screams “indie” at the top of its lungs. It’s got a quirky, comedic cast doing a charming romantic story, with a tinge of geeky science fiction mixed in to sweeten the deal.  It’s even got a musical interlude played on a zither!

The plot follows Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a magazine intern who is roped into a quest by her lazy supervisor to seek out the man behind a bizarre classified ad. The ad offers a chance at time travel – alongside Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a lonely misfit who is either entirely crazy or a complete genius. Darius isn’t sure at first whether she’s trying to make fun of Kenneth or hoping he’s successful, and the confusion she feels helps elevate the romantic material that follows.

As Darius, Plaza does an excellent job of capturing the mess of emotions her character is suffering from – commitment to her story, compassion for her source, responsibility for her slack co-workers, and guilt over potentially betraying her new friend for a byline. The film does make use of a few narrative clichés in its final few scenes, but Safety Not Guaranteed is still a fun little movie with a surprising performance at its core.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul star in 'Smashed'

2. Smashed

This is a film that picked up a lot of accolades at Sundance in 2012, particularly for its lead actor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). Smashed is the story of Kate Hannah, a primary-school teacher who can’t go a couple of hours without sneaking a sip of whisky or indulging in a booze-fueled karaoke session at a local bar.

Thankfully, this lifestyle finally begins to fall apart when she finds herself vomiting in front of her first-graders. But as Kate begins her slow march towards sobriety, she realizes that it may mean leaving behind her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul), who can’t understand why Kate would want to break up the party.

Winstead puts in a performance that’s equal parts fierce, terrified and numb. Perhaps her most wrenching scene comes near the end of the film, when she realizes (in the midst of an alcoholic fog) that she “can’t be sober and be with you” (referring to Charlie). The multi-layered statement becomes Kate’s mantra in the scene, and it serves as unforgettable proof of why we need to see Winstead in more movies.

Brit Marling and William Mapother star in 'Another Earth'

3. Another Earth

Mike Cahill’s film is one I debated putting on this list, as I’m not sure whether its lead character is strong through the merits of Cahill’s writing and Brit Marling’s performance, or whether it’s because the film’s airy style obscures the truth. Ultimately, I decided that Another Earth is worth a mention, if only because of how the main character grapples with a personal tragedy, while the future of civilization is being reshaped around her – a tall order if I ever saw one.

The story centres on a brilliant young astronomer named Rhoda (Marling) who accidently kills a music professor’s wife and son in a drunk-driving incident – on the same night that an apparent duplicate of Earth appears in the sky. Rhoda serves a prison sentence for the crime, but John (William Mapother) never learns Rhoda’s identity, due to the fact she was a minor when the accident occurred. When Rhoda is released, she attempts to apologize to John, only to inadvertently begin a relationship with him.

The fact that all this plays out at the same time as the grander narrative (of humanity potentially encountering their doubles on the mysterious “Earth 2”) is a testament to the scope of the film. In the lead role as Rhoda, Marling is magnetic. She becomes a fascinating symbol of a young person wasting her potential, and yet we still cheer Rhoda on, hoping she’ll find a way out of the emotional maze she’s constructed for herself. While the film may not answer enough of the questions it poses, it’s an engaging exercise in subversive science fiction.

Greta Gerwig (centre) stars in 'Frances Ha'.

4. Frances Ha

My first experience with Noah Baumbach’s work came with his writing on Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (a long-time favourite of mine, despite its haters). In Frances Ha, Baumbach teams with actor/writer (and girlfriend) Greta Gerwig to deliver a relevant - if slightly cringe-inducing - portrait of a New York dancer, who may be one of the few characters we actually want to give up on her dream.

Frances (Gerwig) is steadfastly committed to making it as a professional dancer in the big city, even though she has no money, no responsibility and limited natural talent. She’s also a bit of an eccentric, making it difficult for Frances to hold on to friends or colleagues. And yet, there’s an unexpected amount of resilience hidden under the surface of Frances’ character. While she may appear weak-willed, when she is challenged, she doesn’t descend into despair.

That’s part of what makes Gerwig so enchanting in the lead role – Frances (eventually) overcomes problems that might send other people her age running back to Mom and Dad. But that also means she has to wake up and be realistic about her prospects as a dancer, and focus to goals that strike a balance between self-honesty, artistic fervour and adulthood. In short, a message for twenty-somethings everywhere.


Have you seen any of these movies? If so, what did you think? Join the discussion in the comments section, and feel free to leave suggestions for future “recommendations” columns! Lastly, if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers!