A quiet revolution took place in cinemas earlier this year with the release of Captain Marvel. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise’s first female-fronted superhero movie, it wasn’t just what the film had that made it different, but also what it was lacking – a traditional romantic storyline.
Instead of giving Brie Larson’s character Carol Danvers a love interest in the film, creators gave her a best friend, Maria Rambeau, and positioned their relationship as a driving force of the movie. “This is the love of the movie; this is the great love,” said Larson during a press junket for its release. “This is the love lost. This is the love found again. This is the reason to continue fighting and to go to the ends of the Earth for the person.”
Of course, the Marvel Universe includes countless friendships, but for such a movie juggernaut to put a love story between two women at the heart of its film – in place of a traditional romance – signified a wider shift seen in film in 2019.
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For a long time, friendship has been the supporting act in a film – the drinking buddy, the shoulder to cry on, the wing man. But recently, it’s been offered the lead role. Earlier this year Olivia Wilde released her directorial debut Booksmart to widespread acclaim (the film has a 97% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and was awarded four stars by BBC Culture) – a high school comedy that focuses on two friends facing up to life apart from each other after graduation.
The script, which had been doing the rounds in Hollywood for a decade and went through various rewrites, dropped the original premise of two girls looking for boyfriends before prom to put the focus firmly on the friendship between the two characters. Screenwriter Katie Silberman said she wanted it to have the structure of a romcom, treating the relationship with the same weight as any other type of love story – with all the heartache that comes with it.
Silberman also wrote 2018’s Netflix original Set It Up, one of several romantic comedies the streaming service has released over the past couple of years, but this year, Netflix has pivoted to friendship-focused films. In Someone Great, a character getting dumped by her boyfriend is an initial plot catalyst, but the film ends as a celebration of her female friendships. Likewise, Amy Poehler’s Wine Country, a comedy about a group of girlfriends coming together to celebrate a 50th birthday, finds the humour, warmth and tension that lies in decades-old friendships.
Male friendships are in focus, too. Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, puts the relationship between a struggling actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt) at its core. The director was inspired by the real-life friendship between Burt Reynolds and his stunt man Hal Needham, of whom Reynolds said: “If he had been a woman, we would have had a great marriage.” Upcoming biographical drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, starring Tom Hanks as US TV icon Fred Rogers, tells the story of a real-life friendship that developed between Rogers and a magazine journalist, played by Matthew Rhys.
Films that prioritise friendships over romantic storylines – and don’t involve women either falling out over men or bonding over a man’s terrible behaviour – have proved rare
Yet while bromances and male buddy movies feel familiar on screen, complex portraits of female friendship are less so. Many movies about women’s friendship exist, from sentimental weepie Beaches to iconic road movie Thelma & Louise and hit comedy Bridesmaids. Teen movies especially, like Mean Girls and Clueless, have always explored this particular dynamic. More recently, 2017’s Girl’s Trip – a raucous comedy about four friends taking a trip to New Orleans together – surpassed box office expectations and has confirmed a sequel.
The best friend is a recurring role, but films that prioritise friendships over romantic storylines – and don’t involve women either falling out over men or bonding over a man’s terrible behaviour – have still proved relatively rare. Moreover, when friendships, particularly female ones, are explored, they can fall prey to clichés as much as romantic stories do. Sex & The City, both the TV show and the films, popularised the idea that, while relationships come and go, friends are by your side whatever – usually as a gang of four clutching a glass of something fizzy. Little is seen on screen of the messy, painful and cruel side of friendships, or how and why they sometimes fall apart.
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It was this gap between the reality of friendships and their cultural portrayal that first led Emma Jane Unsworth to write her 2014 novel Animals, about two hell-raising women whose bond is tested when one starts to wonder if there is more to life than their co-dependent world. This week sees the UK release of a film based on the book, also written by Unsworth, and with Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat in the lead roles.
“Getting the everyday dynamics of friendship in there was important,” Unsworth tells BBC Culture. “I wanted it to be funny and to have this wise-cracking duo who are having adventures. Withnail & I was a big influence. I love that film and there’s so much comedy in there but so much poignancy as well.”
When she first sat down to write Animals she wanted to depict a friendship that felt real and messy, like the ones she’d experienced herself. “At the time I didn’t feel like I’d read anything like that, though I think there’s been loads of great things since.”
It’s perhaps because of a lack of nuanced stories on the subject that a film released all the way back in 1978 is still referenced as one of the most seminal on female friendship. Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends told the story of two best friends and roommates living in New York in the midst of the second wave of feminism – with one left adrift when her best friend moves out to get married. It made such an impression on Lena Dunham that she invited Weill to direct an episode of Girls. Its influence is also heavily felt in 2012’s Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig, a film in which friendship is painted as a great romance – one that starts to come apart at the seams when one friend is ready to move on before the other.
If we are going to give friendship its due and say that it is up there with romantic and sexual relationships, then we have to say that it can be as heartbreaking – Emma Jane Unsworth
This idea that friendships change and even end was something Unsworth was keen to explore on screen. “I was so horribly hurt by the break-up of a friendship in my early twenties,” she says. “But with Animals what I wanted to show as well was that if something doesn’t last forever, it’s not a failure.”
The women in Animals also don’t fit the well-worn trope of being each other’s constant cheerleaders. They love one another, but they cause each other great pain, too. “If we are going to give friendship its due and say that it is up there with romantic and sexual relationships in terms of complexity and duration across the span of a lifetime, then we have to say that it can be as heartbreaking, it can be as confusing, it can be as frightening and as cruel,” Unsworth explains.
She hopes this is just the beginning for more perceptive portrayals of friendship on film. “I hope we continue to push deeper and deeper and show it in a whole load of ways.” Our friendships might not enable us to save the world, as they do for Captain Marvel, but they are some of the most important relationships of our lives. Cinema, it seems, is starting to agree.
Animals is released in the UK on 2 August and Ireland on 9 August.
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