Critic’s Notebook: The sisters of summer

Washington Post readers might remember a column I wrote a couple of weeks ago, in which I tried to tease out how a cinematic monoculture of guy-centric movies conditions the expectations and collective sense of entitlement of their mostly male, mostly young core viewers.

That seems like a lifetime ago. Not only because of the media firestorm that ensued, but because, in the course of just 14 days, the movie landscape looks — at least temporarily — so much different. No sooner had I decried sexism in the movie industry and the stories and images it creates than a female-driven, feminist-revisionist fairy tale, “Maleficent,” won the day at the box office. The following week, “The Fault in Our Stars,” an adaptation of the hit young-adult novel by John Green top-lined by Shailene Woodley, became a box office phenomenon, earning nearly $50 million over its opening weekend, earning back its modest $12 million budget four times over.

The filmgoers who made “The Fault in Our Stars” a hit were overwhelmingly women younger than 25 who as fans of the novel and members of Green’s extensive social media community showed up in droves to support the book and author they adore. Between “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Maleficent,” which came in second at the box office, some guy named Tom Cruise was relegated to a virtual afterthought (more on that later).

“Maleficent” and “The Fault in Our Stars” join “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” as just the most recent example of sister power at the movies, a phenomenon that somehow still surprises industry executives even in the wake of such huge hits as “Sex and the City,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Bridesmaids,” “The Help” and “The Heat.” As Meryl Streep famously quipped during a speech at the Women in Film awards in 2012, women’s stories commonly cost a fraction of special-effects extravaganzas (which flop almost as often as they strike gold). Streep expressed disbelief that studios still balked at making women-centered movies. “Why?” she cried incredulously. “Don’t they want the money?”

The fact that women seem finally to be on the cusp of being taken seriously as a market is good news, just as last year’s plethora of successful films by and about African Americans boded well for audiences interested in seeing more than the usual white faces on screen (see “cinematic monoculture, sexism and racism of”). But this early summer crop of hits also suggests a welcome widening of the lens when it comes not just to women’s roles, but men’s as well.

In “The Fault in Our Stars,” Woodley plays Hazel, a gutsy 16-year-old cancer patient who strikes up a relationship with another patient named Gus, played by Ansel Elgort. For its tough subject matter — doomed teenagers grappling with imminent mortality — “The Fault in Our Stars” engages in its own form of romantic wish-fulfillment, sending Hazel and Gus on an enchanted trip to Amsterdam and allowing them to have fun with flirty texts and lighthearted high jinks.

But even with a little bit of Hollywood stardust sprinkled on, Hazel and Gus’s relationship feels refreshingly forward-leaning: As friendship first and foremost, it ultimately blossoms into something more passionate. But its bedrock is the mutual respect and understanding that Hazel and Gus spend most of the movie building, with Gus especially evincing the evolved, self-aware consciousness of a man willing to forgo his own ego and physical desires in order to give Hazel the space she needs.

For Gus’s evil alter ego, viewers need look no further than Stefan, the power-hungry prince in “Maleficent,” who, as other writers have observed, symbolically rapes the title character (drugging her and taking her fairy wings) and sends her into a maelstrom of destructive rage and revenge. Rather than keep the story dark, though, the filmmakers confect a different fate for Maleficent, played by Angelina Jolie at her most sculpturally imposing. Rather than terrorize poor Sleeping Beauty, she befriends her, and “Maleficent” becomes not a saved-by-a-handsome-prince story but a parable of female solidarity and motherly protection.

And for Gus’s equally progressive, slightly more grown-up brother, viewers need look no further than “Obvious Child,” which opened in Washington on Friday. The indie comedy — already shaping up to be one of this season’s sleeper hits — stars Jenny Slate as a 20-ish Brooklynite contemplating the termination of an unplanned pregnancy.

Slate dithers and messes up with amusing abandon as “Obvious Child’s” heroine, a mouthy stand-up comedian. But the film’s most sympathetic character may be her erstwhile love interest Max — played with clean-cut sincerity by Jake Lacy — who backs her up with empathy, unconditional support and stalwart earnestness.

In their own way, Gus and Max represent the evolution of the rom-com dreamboat: an easygoing, implicitly feminist guy who isn’t threatened by a woman who may be smarter or stronger or more emotionally complicated than he is. As male love interests in films that will be seen mostly by female audiences, they do important work in helping girls and young women ponder and define their own romantic ideals. As Max shows us in “Obvious Child,” a real man is a guy who reflexively warms up the plastic-encased pat of butter in his hands before passing it to his date in a restaurant. (Don’t settle for less, ladies!)

Just as encouraging as these paragons are the visions of manhood currently on view in movies that, at least superficially, are directed primarily at men. In “22 Jump Street” — the antic follow-up to the 2012 hit “21 Jump Street” — Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum once again take the mickey out of conventional buddy-cop movies, sending up their homoerotic subtexts and poking meat-headed fun at boys-and-their-toys carnage.

Even more worth cheering is “Edge of Tomorrow,” the sci-fi action flick starring Cruise and Emily Blunt that got swamped by teenage girls when it opened last weekend but deserves a much wider audience. Smart, funny and exceptionally well made, “Edge of Tomorrow” features Cruise in a delectably juicy role in a story whose time-loop structure allows him to revisit nearly every persona he’s made famous in the course of his variable career.

What’s more, “Edge of Tomorrow” finds Cruise engaged in a budding romance much like the one in “Fault in Our Stars”: As in that film, Cruise plays a guy who initially befriends a savvy, tough, physically courageous woman. As time goes on (and on and on and on), the two develop an unmistakable physical attraction to each other but never at the expense of the parity and mutual comprehension they’ve developed over a series of repeating encounters.

As I’ve noted before, movies aren’t real life, nor do they accurately reflect it. But the assumptions, values and norms they project — or satirically scrutinize — have ineffable power to inform and shape our own. From “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Obvious Child” to “22 Jump Street,” what each of these films represents is progress — the chance, like Cruise’s character does in “Edge of Tomorrow,” to nudge reality just a little bit further in a new direction, and maybe even a more enlightened one.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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