love_and_friendship_1There are two films currently out in theaters that, despite their disparate execution, hit the same narrative and emotional beats with winning charm. The first, reunites director Whit Stillman with stars Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in Love and Friendship, a Georgian-era Jane Austen adaptation (co-written by Sevigny) with rapid fire laughs and timeless characteristics. The second, is Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, featuring the 90s king of existential indie, Ethan Hawke, and modern day screwball queen, Greta Gerwig. Their tale is a bit more complicated, picking up in earnest where most films end. Both are spins on the tried and true rom-com template, but feature delightfully mischievous women who are forced to clean up after the men around them. Together, the films make an unexpectedly fun double-bill that’s equally breezy and hilarious, culminating in fascinating portraits of female friendship and empowerment.

Love and Friendship begins when a recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) decides to take refuge with her in-laws. Lady Susan immediately sets her eye on the younger brother of her late husband, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), but there seems to be more at play. DeCourcy, initially put off by Susan’s flirty reputation, can’t help but find himself enamored with her sophistication and wit – he quickly warms to her. Their controversial story converges with that of Susan’s daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who is running away from school and an unwanted suitor, causing ripples in Susan’s sly machinations.

Stillman’s film is quick witted and even quicker paced, with a shuffling plot that doesn’t dare look back and rests firmly in the charisma of its charmed cast. Kate Beckinsale absolutely owns the role with pitch-perfect comedic timing and an ability to balance genuine empathy with cunning, rapturous resourcefulness. You really feel that she’s at least two steps ahead of everyone else, and it’s a joy just to see how everyone plays straight into her hand. The film plays to Stillman’s strengths as well, as he and his characters navigate upper-class ennui and hidden emotions come to boil with ingenuity and sophistication. There isn’t anything too deep here, but its better constructed than almost any other film in the genre of late, and Lady Susan is too fun of a heroine to pass up. Chloe Sevigny adds a nice flourish as Susan’s confidante, Alicia, while Tom Bennett’s aloof and dim-witted Sir James Martin steals a few scenes with the innocence of his frantically naive persona. The film definitely doesn’t play out how you expect, and you’ll love getting lost in its clutches.

maggies_planMaggie’s Plan is about a young, wide-eyed New Yorker (Greta Gerwig) who wants nothing more than to become a single mother. She’s already got a solid plan, thanks to a donation from an old acquaintance, but its thwarted when when she meets an older, married man named John (Ethan Hawke), himself an anthropologist who moonlights as a fledging fiction novelist. With John’s marriage on the rocks, the two bond when he asks for her opinion of his in-progress novel. Three years later, the two are married and with a child, and Maggie finds her life put on hold as she struggles to keep John’s stagnant dreams afloat. Feeling trapped, she conspires to help John’s ex-wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore) win John back, and liberate herself from their one-sided relationship.

What makes Miller’s film so fun, aside from its meta casting, is that it’s a collision of the genre’s past and present and itself a deconstruction of what we’ve come to expect from these films. Using the typical happy ending as a starting off point, the story is at times a sobering reflection of our dreams and how they don’t always turn out the way we expect. Maggie finds out the hard way that happiness isn’t something that can be planned, but something we ease into, and never in the way we expect. Bringing the film to life is another great performance from star Greta Gerwig, adding a little more depth to a character we’ve seen her play many times before. In many ways, the film feels like a progression of the genre and Gerwig as a performer, questioning its own simplistic idea of romance and hitting us with a more pragmatic and earned reality that’s still hopeful but not naive. It’s great to see Ethan Hawke as a deliberately washed-up version of his most iconic screen self, while Julianne Moore lends John’s ex Georgette a painfully human perspective. The film never gets lost in its plotting and has a sense of humor about itself despite the darker ideas sprinkled throughout, resulting in an effortlessly fun film that turns out to be a romance about life’s unpredictability.

Seeing both of these films almost back-to-back is an eye opener – they’re both anchored by strong female characters and relationships, and buck the trend of these stories always being told from a male perspective. Though the ideas in the films aren’t new, they feel reinvigorated by the heroines that embody them, and they’re just a lot of fun. Come for the colorful characters, stay for the sharp commentary and celebration of earned femininity.

SG