Directed by Claudia Weill; Written by Claudia Weill and Vicki Polon
Witty, softly uplifting in its small victories, and resonant more than forty years after its release, Girlfriends is an insightful feminist take on friendship, romance and the professional struggle for young creatives to succeed in a world where you’re twice as likely to get patronized than get paid.
Susan (Melanie Mayron) makes a living shooting bar mitzvah portraits and wedding photos, supporting her vision of later thriving off her art, with publication in magazines her goal, and having her own show the holy grail. Her best friend Annie (Anita Skinner) is a writer and also her roommate and together they live, grow, and discuss how lacklustre the romantic offerings are. All in all, they’re young, free, and buoyant with no baggage to speak of and wide horizons to explore.
All that gets brought into question, however, when Annie moves in with and gets married to the man she previously said she harbored no passionate feelings for, and quickly settles into the domesticity Susan secretly sees as betrayal of the lives she thought they both wanted.
Left with double rent, a decimated social life and confused ill will towards the person closest to her, Susan has to forge ahead, and the thrill is in Melanie Mayron’s deft touch for laid-back comedy, quiet ruination, and naked earnestness as she navigates the dolts and fools that is New York’s crop of eligible lovers, plugs away at her frustrated career and tries to find her way back to Annie.
The stakes aren’t high, but the scenarios are relatable: awkward smalltalk at parties, insufferable chatter from cab drivers about how they’re “all for” women taking what’s theirs, and money being tight at publishing houses. The powers that be are holding most doors tightly shut and only have a condescending twitch of a smile and a non-committal “We’ll call ya if something comes up” to spare.
Girlfriends is for anyone whose restless heart found a home in Frances Ha, The Last Days of Disco, or Girls, or any story about the giddy freedom of being young and ambitious meeting with the cynical world who has grown old crushing the dreams of twenty-somethings.
Girls in particular borrows from Susan’s struggles with friendship, romance, and making it as an artist in the city, but where Dunham’s comedy and brand of feminism prided itself on being loud, outsized, and making no excuses, Weill’s treatment of Polon’s script is much more subdued and grounded.
Yes, Susan is an vocal feminist, but that doesn’t make her impervious to feelings of jealousy when confronted with her friends’ domestic lives and the trappings she might feel are suffocating, or feeling lonely and doubtful at times even if the men in her life are varying degrees of well-meaning goobers, and she rightly believes she needs no one to take care of her.
The result is someone who’s easy to relate to, and see the humanity in. The same is not true of Dunham’s Hannah, whose humanity was too often only visible in her lowest moments, and as an overarching mode of expression, Girls contented itself with being provocative and outspoken with a goal to simply garner attention first, and then speaking its mind.
Girlfriends speaks only to those willing to listen in the first place, and the ideas that drop from its lips are not about Susan, nor are they about womanhood as an individual pursuit, but how womanhood intersects and the resulting tapestry is something nothing and no one should be allowed to rip asunder.