How One Director Is Rallying For Women In Film

by Rachel Simon

From my many years of viewing experience, I've determined that the best romantic comedies all have something in common: you need to see the two leads get together in the end. It doesn't matter if they're both pretty flawed people, or if there are rational reasons they wouldn't work, or if they've encountered pretty much every obstacle that could possibly happen. The law of great rom-coms states that no matter what, the maybe-couple at the center has to get together, and you'll be rooting for them every step of the way. Yet Sleeping with Other People , a new movie out Sept. 11, doesn't abide by this rule. Sure, you want the two leads to reunite — but you also think that if, for some reason, they don't, it'd actually be totally OK.

It's not because Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie don't give totally convincing performances as Jake and Lainey, respectively — they do. And it's not because Sleeping with Other People is a bad rom-com, some kind of an insult to the genre — it isn't. It's because, for the first time I can remember, the fact that the lead characters are clearly meant to end up together doesn't mean that the people they date beforehand are total monsters, or horrible cliches. They're perfectly good people, who don't deserve to get left behind, as their roles in rom-com land order. And one of them, Amanda Peet's Paula, might even be more likable than the heroine played by Alison Brie.

Rooting for the "other" woman — that's the sign of a rom-com failure, right? Actually no; in Sleeping with Other People's case, it's the sign of an awesomely feminist movie. Director Leslye Headland (who made 2012's excellent, barrier-breaking Bachelorette, in which every character, from Kirsten Dunst's miserable alpha to Rebel Wilson's sweet bride, is as real as you or I) doesn't let any of her characters, especially the women, turn into silly stereotypes or damaging cliches. It doesn't matter if they're the lead heroine or the girl you're supposed to hate — in her world, everyone deserves to be honestly and fairly portrayed.

Take Paula, for instance. She's Jake's boss, a clearly successful woman who, viewers see early, is also smart, funny, and kind. She's an extremely likable person, all the more so when we meet her young son and realize she's balancing a high-pressure job with parenting a kid by herself — pretty cool, right? When she and Jake do start dating, they instantly connect, and it turns serious fast, with Jake even getting to know her son. It's hard not to root for them, even while knowing that Jake will most likely leave her for Lainey. So when – spoiler! — they do break up, as we knew they would, it's heartbreaking. Paula is devastated, and understandably infuriated that Jake deceived her into believing that he was over his ex. When we leave her, she's a mess, and it's impossible not to feel that she was wronged, deserving of so much better.

In other words, she's not your typical "second choice." In fact, she's not your typical anything; she's a complicated, realistic woman who's full of contradictions, who dates a guy she knows might be wrong for her and occasionally goes against her own morals. She's a great character, especially in a role that's normally forgotten about the moment the actor leaves the screen; trust me, when the credits roll, you'll still be wondering what happened to Paula.

And then there's Naomi (Andrea Savage), a wife and mom who is, yes, tired and often-exasperated, but also hilarious, dirty-mouthed, and caring about her friends. There's also Emma (Katherine Waterson), the gorgeous, pregnant wife of Lainey's horrible ex (Adam Scott), who easily could be a "cool girl" cliche, but instead shows real concern for her marriage and sympathetic naivety. Even Hannah (Margarita Levieva), a cheated-on girl whose enraged freak-out provides much of the movie's initial laughs, is a developed character whose legitimate hurt overshadows her insults. And of course, there's Lainey, the protagonist, who is sweet and funny and relatable, but also a pretty flawed person who doesn't always treat people as well as she should.

The fact that the supporting characters are just as multi-faceted as the heroine is a huge compliment to the movie; unlike so many other films, People lets all of its female characters be realistic and three-dimensional. It's rare enough for movies to have more than one female character (only 30 percent of speaking characters in 2007-2014's top grossing films were women, according to a recent USC Annenberg study) so for People to do so right by so many is pretty remarkable.

It's all in a day's work for director Leslye Headland, though. With this movie and Bachelorette, the filmmaker has proven that she's the best when it comes to creating female characters who are just as flawed, complicated, and realistic as women truly are. It's no surprise that Headland would bring her Bachelorette A-game to Sleeping with Other People, but considering the landscape for Hollywood women today, it's a wonderful thing to see.

Image: IFC Films; Giphy (2)