Bechdel Test Canon: Me Without You
As a teenager in the late '90s, I didn’t get the fuss over Katie Holmes. Folks may remember her appearances in teensploitation fare like Disturbing Behavior or Teaching Mrs. Tingle (co-starring Helen Mirren!), but Holmes also snagged supporting roles in The Ice Storm, Go, and Wonder Boys. My hunch is that casting directors thought her sad eyes and chestnut mane made her seem precocious, a good girl on the verge of going bad. Personally, I thought her range was limited by how much hair she could tuck behind her ears or how deeply she could bite her bottom lip. When I tuned in to Dawson’s Creek, my eyes were on Michelle Williams.
The Creek didn’t rise to meet Jen Lindley, the trollop to Joey Potter’s girl next door. In the finale, Lindley was killed off by some mysterious disease linked to slut shaming. Also, Christ, the overwritten dialogue. But Williams gave the role a cracked dignity. Now Williams is considered the actress of her generation and seems primed to win an Oscar for My Week With Marilyn. Detractors may think she can only play grave-faced survivors, based on her stoic performances in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy—however, Williams demonstrates real range. In dramatic performances, she has played scorned women (Blue Valentine; Brokeback Mountain), unhinged wives (Shutter Island), and narcissistic bright young things (I’m Not There; Synecdoche, New York). But she’s equally proficient—and perhaps less recognized—as a comedienne. Dick showcased these talents early on, though I’m especially fond of her performance in The Baxter. I’m no fan of Michael Showalter’s retread of The Apartment, but Williams masterfully channels Shirley MacLaine as wide-eyed romantic lead Cecil Mills while being singularly charming.
Writer-director Sandra Goldbacher’s 2001 feature Me Without You champions the girl who gets overlooked and now serves as further evidence for the kind of actress Williams was to become. Attempting a British accent, Williams plays mousy intellectual Holly. At first glance, she is no match for her glamorous best friend Marina (Anna Friel). But the film makes clear that Holly is the better, more substantial person, especially by her jealous confidant’s own estimation. We’ve seen this dynamic play out between Betty and Veronica, Angela and Rayanne, and Nina and Nina. But it also challenges the binary I constructed between Holmes and Williams. Why is the girl with the most cake cast as the villain while the wallflower is valorized for being ignored?
The leading actresses’ performances temper this criticism somewhat, as both Williams and Friel do a remarkable job establishing a friendship that spans (and, oftentimes, devolves) from their early adolescence in the mid-70s into their late twenties in the early '90s. Me Without You recalls Judy Blume’s affecting Summer Sisters, which focuses on the generation-spanning friendship between popular Caitlin Somers and shy Vix Leonard, and Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls, which uses British punk as a narrative framework for an adolescent memoir. In characteristic fashion, Blume’s novel doesn’t shy away from the pair’s burgeoning sexuality and their romantic feelings toward one another. Greenlaw’s autobiography uses pop ephemera to place adolescence in a particular generational and national context. Williams and Friel do a great job incorporating these elements into a complex friendship while never letting the costumes, hairstyles, and poptones overpower the emotional core of this tenuous, semi-platonic connection.
Give credit to production designer Michael Carlin, art director Stephen Carter, and costume designer Rosie Hackett, who do an admirable job addressing the tiniest nuances of shifting period specificities that ultimately serve as a metaphor for the women’s friendship. However, I have a big problem with the screenplay, which Goldbacher co-wrote with Laurence Coriat. Principally, I have difficulty understanding why Holly chooses to remain friends with Marina for so long. The film seems to suggest that both women are responsible for the decay of their friendship—Marina for undermining Holly’s confidence and betraying her trust so she can remain subordinate, Holly for allowing this dynamic to play out without defending herself.
Perhaps as someone who’s been the beta to a few alpha females over the years, I’m blind to how exactly Holly is at fault. I commend Williams’ restrained, diffident performance and applaud the screenwriters’ decision to never give Holly the full faculty of language to really let Marina have it. But I find it difficult to sympathize with reckless Marina, who is a villain no matter how much Friel works at making her sympathetic. Marina’s most grievous offense is interfering with Holly’s relationship with her brother Nat (Oliver Milburn). Her meddling results in Nat moving away and marrying another woman when he still carries the torch for his sister’s best friend, all in the service of her own ego.
A minor offense, but Holly and Marina unwittingly share their critical studies professor Daniel (Kyle MacLachlan). This is pure plot contrivance. For one, I am so tired of seeing representations of academics as bed-hopping Lotharios when our reality is far less sexy (and doesn’t usually play out in loft apartments that many of us can’t afford). Also, the consequences for sexual misconduct are far more severe than being written out of a script. A more interesting choice would be to write a stand-in for Angela McRobbie. Feminist ideology transformed British cultural studies in the '70s and '80s, particularly in its centralization of women’s engagement with popular culture and girls’ subcultural identification. How easy it is to write in a married thirty-something intellectual lout for the girls to fight over when it might be more difficult to create a credible mentor.
In the film’s epilogue, Marina and Holly watch their daughters play together. Marina’s child wears one of her mother’s old party dresses and her uncle Nat, now with his childhood sweetheart, seems worried that they have inherited their mothers’ cycle of abuse and codependency. I am also concerned, particularly because Me Without You, though well acted and richly observed, doesn’t give me reason not to be. Perhaps that's the danger of girl friendships. But hopefully the girls' mothers can also teach them about the pleasures and rewards of such relationships.
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