Director Claudia Weill made enough of a critical splash with Girlfriends, her award-winning debut fictional feature, that she seemed poised to become one of the few successful female directors in Hollywood. Yet after her second feature, the studio comedy It’s My Turn (1980), failed to generate excitement, Weill retreated into directing for television. Revisiting Girlfriends, it’s easy to see why she found a home in TV, since Weill is best at capturing the miniscule details of human interaction. Yet it’s also fair to suggest that had Weill come along a few years earlier, she might have thrived during the heyday of the New Hollywood. In any event, Girlfriends is appealing but slight, a character study about a young woman trying to find herself personally and professionally.
Other filmmakers of the same era, notably Paul Mazursky, explored identical subject matter in pictures that were funnier and slicker than Girlfriends. However, Weill’s movie has a unique sort of intimacy, partially because it was shot on grungy 16mm film stock. Starring the decidedly unglamorous Melanie Mayron, the movie has the aesthetic of a modern indie flick, with humdrum locations and self-involved characters and an unresolved climax. In other words, it’s like life, whereas similar films from studios—even Mazursky’s fine efforts—tended to wrap the experiences of women in neat, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar bows.
Written by Vicki Polon, Girlfriends concerns Susan Weinblatt, a meek photographer who makes her living shooting bar mitzvahs and weddings for Rabbi Gold (Eli Wallach). After moving through unsatisfying trysts with men, as well as thorny relationships with two very different gal pals—conformist Annie (Anita Skinner) and hippie Ceil (Amy Wright)—Susan grows a spine and starts demanding respect in the bedroom and the workplace. The small beauty of Weill’s movie is that it doesn’t reduce people to stereotypes. For instance, Susan’s boyfriend throughout most of the story, Eric (Christopher Guest), exhibits macho control issues while also manifesting sensitivity and understanding. Similarly, the married Rabbi Gold seems like a lech when he makes a pass at the much-younger Susan, but then a scene featuring his domineering wife reveals that he’s simply emasculated and lonely. One of the movie’s themes, therefore, relates to Susan learning how to provide her own compass for navigating a complex world, since no one else can offer sufficient guidance.
Although the film is unfocused—despite the title, friendship is only one of many threads holding the story together—Weill and her collaborators compensate for the meandering narrative with scenes that ring true emotionally. The picture also benefits from amiable performances, with Mayron the obvious standout and Wallach lending brand-name credibility. Future comedy star Guest gives a solid dramatic turn (with hints of his signature deadpan humor), while Bob Balaban, subsequently to become a member of Guest’s quasi-repertory company, appears in a secondary role. Among the less familiar names, Skinner and Wright both deliver believable work.