Colin Trevorrow’s Women Problem, or Pray for Episode IX

At the moment of writing, my ask box is full of messages about The Book of Henry, the newly released film from Colin Trevorrow, who is both writing and directing Episode IX. This is because BOH is, to put it mildly, getting terrible reviews. These reviews don’t just say the film is bad. They say the film is a disaster on the scale of The Room (no, not the one with Brie Larson) and Birdemic.

Perhaps more worrying, though, is the suggestion that BOH is terrible at characterising its female characters, who apparently include an infantile mother whose every move is dictated by her 11-year-old son’s instructions, an alcoholic waitress who kisses a young boy on the lips, and a schoolgirl who exists to be sexually abused and subsequently rescued thanks to a boy’s genius. This is, understandably, a cause of concern given that Trevorrow will soon be the arbiter of Rey’s fate – the same man responsible for The Book of Henry will soon be responsible for giving the heroine of the Star Wars sequel trilogy her voice.

The issues with BOH seem to go beyond an insidious edge of sexism – reviews point out wild tonal jumps and ludicrously misjudged directorial choices. While it might be tempting to place most of the blame for the characterisation on the scriptwriter, Trevorrow’s handling of the material only seems to have magnified its faults and heightened the bizarre tonal inconsistency. This points towards the responsibility for BOH’s failure lying largely with Trevorrow. Any assignment of blame aside, Trevorrow has treated BOH as a passion project, having been working on getting it made for around 10 years – for some mystifying reason, he found what appears to be objectively bad material an enticing directorial prospect. At best, this seems to indicate poor judgement – at worst, it indicates troubling detachment from the qualities of sound and emotionally resonant cinema.

I haven’t seen BOH for myself. If you want to read reviews from people who have seen it, check out the notices on the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page (the score currently stands at 25%). Because I haven’t seen BOH for myself I am not in a position to truly judge it, so I intend to move on. Instead, I will briefly discuss the other Trevorrow projects I have seen and my feelings on them.

The first Trevorrow film I saw was Jurassic World. I thought it was fine – it was bland and by the numbers, a pillar of corporate cinema, but mostly inoffensive to me. I only became conscious of its more insidious aspects when I started reading think-pieces on the portrayal of its female characters and the attitudes demonstrated towards them. Bryce Dallas-Howard’s character is uptight and shrill, a career woman whose ‘arc’ sees her humbled and restored to her proper maternal role (of caring for her nephews) and the status of assigned love interest to the hunky hero. Poor Katie McGrath suffers an even more ignominious fate – we see her screaming body being mauled by an assortment of dinosaurs more than we see her developed as a character. Trevorrow gave a spectacularly ill-conceived explanation of the thinking behind McGrath’s character’s death to Empire magazine:

But we definitely struggled over how much to allow her to earn her death, and ultimately it wasn’t because she was British, it was because she was a bridezilla. She has one line about the bachelor party: ‘Oh, all his friends are animals.’ In the end, the earned death in these movies has become a bit standard and another thing I wanted to subvert. ‘How can we surprise people? Let’s have someone die who just doesn’t deserve to die at all.

It’s almost like he catches up with himself here, giving the true reason for her punishment (how dare a woman be invested in her wedding! Brutal torture incoming!) before correcting himself by saying she didn’t deserve to die. The clumsiness of the back-track would be almost amusing if it weren’t for the insidiousness of the initial remark.

Much more recently, I watched Safety Not Guaranteed. I mentioned this on the podcast, and if I’m being entirely honest the film has soured for me since then. While I can’t really pinpoint outright sexism in SNG (though there is a definite aspect of Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the lead character, whose ultimate purpose seems to be getting a socially awkward loner out of a funk), I can highlight the remarkably bland and uninspired direction. While I appreciate that Safety Not Guaranteed was low budget and the first feature Trevorrow had ever made, I still find it remarkable that it demonstrates almost no creative flair or visual imagination yet still became his calling card in Hollywood. Safety Not Guaranteed was apparently the film that impressed Kathleen Kennedy enough to get Trevorrow on board for Episode IX, but she clearly saw something in it that I did not.

Just yesterday, I watched something from Trevorrow that wasn’t just bad. It was actually repulsive. This film is Trevorrow’s first short film, called Home Base:

This ‘film’ (I use the term in the loosest sense of the word) is, apparently, a comedy. The premise of this ‘film’ is that a man who is dumped by his girlfriend for another man decides to take his revenge on her by ‘fucking her mom’. This man is never questioned or treated as the appalling misogynist he so clearly is, instead being presented as something of a cheeky chappie whose ‘triumph’ at the end of the film (yes, he does it! He fucks her mom! What a hero!) we should applaud while hooting with laughter and slapping our knees. The awful capstone on all of this is an awful correctional speech that the man delivers to his sobbing ex:

I don’t think you’re shallow. I think you’ve got something wrong. You were just emotionally completely disconnected. I mean that whole orgasm thing, I mean it’s not my fault if you can’t come. I’ve tried everything, you’ve done everything. You’re just emotionally frigid, you’re physically frigid. I leave the light on in a room and you freak out, you’re not paying the electricity bill. It’s my apartment. And how you feel about kids. It’s weird.

There we have it – the writer and director of this is also the writer and director of Episode IX. Joy of joys.

And any allegations of sexism aside, just look at that thing. I was amazed by the length of the credits, by the fact that something that looks so shoddy and cheap could even have an ‘Assistant Producer’. It looks like it was shot by a lone agent on a camcorder over a single weekend. This is not the kind of short film that should portend great things. In any just world, this kind of audiovisual abomination should signal an abrupt end to a career in Hollywood.

The fact that Trevorrow has found such extraordinary success despite his track record, with much of his success apparently resting on his personal connections and his ability to charm prominent figures such as Brad Bird and Steven Spielberg, is a troubling indictment of the system that saw Patty Jenkins denied the opportunity to make her second feature for over 15 years. While Oscar-winning female directors struggle to be taken seriously and given opportunities, directors like Trevorrow – who demonstrate little artistic sensibility and only have extremely limited filmmaking experience – are put at the helm of major franchise films. For a highly eloquent explanation of this phenomenon, I strongly recommend checking out Kayleigh Donaldson’s piece on Pajiba.

I do not have a personal grudge against Trevorrow. In every interview I have seen with him, he has seemed charming, eloquent and enthusiastic. He is clearly passionate about Star Wars and intensely aware of the scrutiny he and his film are under. But at the same time I am troubled by the persistent misogyny and lack of creative flair that have been evident in his work from the beginning of his career. Star Wars films are basically modern myths, totems of Western culture that people look to as a source of inspiration and hope. In particular, this new trilogy is the story of a young woman coming into her power as a hero and grappling with her destiny. It’s a story that should be handled by a filmmaker who has demonstrated an interest in characterising women as something more than props for men’s stories. And I have strong doubts that Trevorrow is up to this task.

I am not saying that Rey shouldn’t have relationships with male characters – Wonder Woman is an excellent demonstration of how a woman’s story can involve a strong central relationship with a man without that bond being shown to diminish her – but I am saying that that shouldn’t become the sum of her story. Nothing would break my heart more than seeing Rey become sidelined in her own film, or reduced to a prop for another character’s journey.

I have loved what I’ve seen from Disney-owned Star Wars so far, and I don’t believe that Kathleen Kennedy will allow Trevorrow to use Episode IX to peddle the retrograde misogyny so clearly on display in Home Base. But I do think it reflects badly on her that Trevorrow was appointed the director of Episode IX in the first place, when there are clearly so many superior directors out there – women and men – who have shown far greater creative flair and competence. I think there will inevitably be a fallout from BOH – most likely after the inevitably dismal box office results emerge – and while I expect it’s too late in the process for Trevorrow to be removed from the project entirely, I fully expect him to receive considerable oversight and have his work scrutinised to ensure that the capstone to this new Star Wars trilogy doesn’t do irreparable damage to the franchise.

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One thought on “Colin Trevorrow’s Women Problem, or Pray for Episode IX

  1. Worrying yes….but Rey is already proving popular with females,particularly strong females, and I genuinely think Mr Trevorrow may have to rethink his attitude to women before Ep. 9 goes ahead. It’s still a while before the film will be released – plenty of time for those of us concerned to air our doubts and hopefully have a positive effect on the director and the path he decides to take.I desperately want ‘Reylo’ to happen but I want it to be a coming together of equals, with neither character dominating the other.

    Your mentioning of Patty Jenkins brings to mind Marvel’s ‘Thor’ franchise. Ms Jenkins was hired as director for The Dark World, but was fired for objecting to studio interference. This infuriated Natalie Portman, who wanted Ms Jenkins desperately as director. Instead they hired a director known primarily for TV work whom they could bully, and instead of an epic dark fantasy the resulting movie was a borderline comedy whose female characters were treated terribly,especially Natalie.
    As a result I’ve lost all interest in the Thor franchise. I really hope this doesn’t happen with Star Wars!

    Like

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