The Season’s Films Feature Female Characters That Thrive on the Unexpected

Jenelle Riley
·8-min read

This season saw female actors embody characters that were often unpredictable — and audiences and critics embraced them. Viola Davis stars in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” as a woman who knows her worth and doesn’t apologize for it — practically unheard of for a Black woman in 1927. Andra Day also plays a singer who doesn’t conform to expectations in “The People vs. Billie Holiday,” with tragic results. Then there are characters such as Frances McDormand’s Fern in “Nomadland,” who leaves her life behind to live on the road in her van, and Carey Mulligan’s Cassandra who quits medical school to exact revenge in “Promising Young Woman.”

Overall it’s been a great year for a wide range of women’s stories; and the actors have had interesting journeys getting there.

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Some actors have made a career of defying the expectations society has about how a woman should behave. Glenn Close can currently be seen in “Hillbilly Elegy” as Mamaw, the tough-talking and equally tough-loving grandmother to J.D. Vance in Ron Howard’s adaptation of Vance’s memoir. Close admits she seems to be drawn to women

who behave outside the norm, from the mistress in “Fatal Attraction” to a woman who disguises herself as a man in “Albert Nobbs.”

“I mean, my first feature film role was Jenny Fields [in “The World According to Garp”] who wore her white nurse’s dress all the time and had curious ideas about sex,” she says. “And you know, she was very, what was the word — out of the ordinary? Yes. And, yeah, I just think they’re interesting characters.”

Perhaps no character took a wilder ride than Tutar, the daughter of infamous sexist Borat in “Borat Subesequent Moviefilm.” Played by newcomer Maria Bakalova, Tutar begins the movie believing she is insignificant, literally living in a barn amongst livestock. By the end, she has not only become a feminist hero, she’s opened her father’s eyes to seeing women as equals.

“It was inspiring!” says Bakalova of the character’s journey. “It still is inspiring! I truly believe that this is a timeless movie! In front of our eyes we see how one little girl with a huge heart is finding her path in life.”

Despite having been disregarded by her father for most of her life, by the end Tutar learns to be a strong, independent woman and becomes the first female journalist in her country.

“We see that sometimes you must take your destiny in your own hands and follow your inner voice, no matter how much you trust someone else,” she notes. “You have to take a leap of faith, trust yourself and you have to keep going, persevere, you have to keep trying, because you must follow your bliss, your passion, your dreams. All of your experiences, no matter how dark it can feel while you are going through a tough patch, are teaching you valuable lessons and expand your understanding of life and your place in this universe. Learning is a life-long journey. You die when you stop learning.”

It’s an understatement to call Tutar’s behavior unexpected, as that’s where most of the comedy lies. The role required Bakalova to film scenes with real people; in one, she dances at a ball and “inadvertently” displays the period blood on her undergarments and legs. In another, she explains to her babysitter (Jeansie Jones, who becomes the heart of the film) that she is ready to be given as a gift to a high-powered man.

Bakalova says the interactions between Tutar and Jeansie are a beautiful example of treating each other with love and respect.

“That’s the lesson she learns from her babysitter, the amazing Jeanise Jones, and later will teach her father, Borat,” she says. “Tutar may become the first independent girl, but she never loses her love for her father. She will be ready to sacrifice her life to save Borat’s life. That’s the most beautiful aspect for me. She is the first daughter that will reject being subjugated by her father and patriarchal societal structures and he will be the first father that will admit that he loves his daughter — a man she deeply respects — there they’ll meet again, as equals! And that how it should be.”

Another young woman who defies expectations, particularly of the time, is Helena Zengel in “News of the World.” She plays Johanna, a girl who was taken by a Kiowa tribe at a young age and finds herself orphaned when they are slaughtered. Tom Hanks plays Captain Kidd, who is tasked with returning Johanna to her remaining family. The film is set in 1870, when things were obviously very different.

“For me as a 12-year-old ‘young woman,’ I could not imagine what it would be like to live during that time,” notes Zengel. “Obviously, women didn’t have much power and influence on what was going on. That must have been hard because they were very dependent on their husbands/partners — if they were lucky to have one after the war. And not to mention the clothes! I feel very lucky to be able to decide what I want — except my mom doesn’t always say yes!”

In many ways, Johanna is ahead of her time, headstrong and willing to battle for what she wants; she is more than a match for Kidd. Zengel says she can relate.

“When I was a toddler, my mother told me I never gave up,” she says. “If I had an idea — an ice cream, a decision, a game — I insisted until I got what I wanted. Sometimes this wasn’t very easy for her because I always felt I got the right to get what I wanted. I didn’t stop, I tried everything — sometimes with a smile, sometimes with little tricks like crying! But I feel that I’m blessed that my mother tried to understand and never broke my will or dignity, so I could grow up with a strong mind and determined personality.”

While Zengel’s Johanna subverts expectations of how a young woman should behave, Yuh-jung Youn’s character Soon-ja in “Minari” is not your typical grandma, much to the initial disappointment of her 7-year-old grandson David (Alan S. Kim.) Complaining she smells “like Korea,” David thinks a Western grandma should bake cookies while Soon-ja smokes, swears and loves professional wrestling.

In discussing how Soon-ja doesn’t fit into David’s expectations, Youn says: “This is one of the reasons I liked the script. Because this is real. And from his perspective she was a total stranger and so different from his perception of what a grandmother was supposed to look like.”

She adds that she was like David herself when she was a child. “I was not nice to my great-grandmother at all. I thought her dirty because she did not wash and only in hindsight I understood that she was trying to save money by not using water. She would also often say that she is not hungry and skip meals and now I know that it was because so we could eat more. We had so little after the war, you know? And she would not mind me being unwelcoming or unaffectionate to her. Just like Soon-ja did not mind and loved David just the same. That is the beauty about a grandmother’s love, I think.”

Youn says the she enjoys playing a character a little outside expectations. “I think it gives you great freedom as an actor. Because there are more places you can go with these characters,” she notes. “I enjoy observing and studying people. Especially those who one would call unconventional. And when you get to play someone who is different I like to apply or work with some of these learnings and that is just fun. But to be honest, it wasn’t always like that. Earlier in my career, it was hard for me to get some roles because I was considered too unusual and different. My looks, my voice, my humor. And that hurts when you are young. But with the years I have come to embrace and appreciate it.”

And eventually, Soon-ja and David do bond. “It is a very gradual process on David’s part. Soon-ja’s love for David is the same from beginning to end,” she says. “What sets her apart from his parents is that she is much more daring and not so afraid for him.” As for why they bond, she muses. “She encourages him and is the first person who tells him he is strong but when he is weak and afraid she is also fiercely protective of him. And simply because they are family.”

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