“It’s like if John Hughes and David Lynch went on a date–but they were women.”
This is how filmmaker Jennifer Reeder describes her 2014 short film, A Million Miles Away. The film is a curious blend of surrealism and self-consciousness, and it’s as thoughtful as it is thought-provoking. I had a chance to speak with the director, who discussed her background and influences as well as her motivations in making films.
A dancer in college, Reeder went on to get her MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her dancing background still influences how, as she puts it, she choreographs a film. “It’s all a way of making scenes happen within a frame. It’s movement.”
Reeder cites Maya Deren as an influence, noting similarities in her dancing background. Growing up in Ohio and coming from a place outside the traditional scope of filmmaking, Reeder had to develop her own methods as she went along. There was a freedom in that for her. “Because I didn’t know the rules, I came out of the gate breaking them.”
To Reeder, diversity in casting is vital. Her earliest works (Google ‘White Trash Girl’ and be amazed) came out of the riot grrrl culture of mid 90s third wave feminism, and her recent films maintain this focus on female self-assertion. Reeder values representation, and she crafts stories depicting the lives and experiences of girls and women with a special emphasis on young women of color in rural environments.
Independent filmmaking allows for this type of expression. “I think it’s a really good time to have a lot of ideas,” Reeder says. With younger audiences tiring of being fed the same stories, she sees independent filmmakers as having an advantage. “It’s a way for people at the margins to make the films they want to make.”
“It’s a little bit of an old boys’ club,” Reeder notes of mainstream film. “They don’t seek out diversity.” In part, she attributes this shortcoming to laziness and lack of thought. Her experiences at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, though largely positive, opened her eyes to the extent of the situation.
“There was this director’s brunch at the Redford compound, just tables of men all huddled together.” It hit her then—this is how deals are made.
“The industry is dying to turn more men into auteurs,” Reeder says, and rattles off a list of women who, in her mind, are already there. She mentions Miranda July, who had to fight for funding after her massively successful Me and You and Everyone We Know premiered in 2005. Reeder also points to Debra Granik, who wrote and directed Winter’s Bone in 2010 and who has since struggled to find backing for certain projects.
“These women had all these ideas, but not the same level of support. I just think that never happens to men.”
Reeder alludes to Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow and his now-infamous comments on female directors. On the subject, Trevorrow stated, “I think it makes [female directors] seem like victims to suggest that they’re not getting the opportunities and not artists who know very clearly what kind of stories they want to tell and what films they want to make. To me, that’s the reality.” (And here, if you listen closely, you can hear the exasperated sighs of women filmmakers everywhere.)
It’s quite likely that Trevorrow’s reality is different than the reality experienced by women within the film industry. Post-Sundance, Reeder admits she was approached with several new projects, but these projects weren’t always ones she was quick to sign on for.
Reeder says she doesn’t discriminate against big-budget films because of the financial aspect, but rather because of the ways women are often treated within these narratives. “I’ll get scripts that are so misogynistic, so racist, so hateful, and I’ll turn them down. But I won’t just say no—I’ll say, ‘This is not the script for me and here is why.’”
Reeder is uncompromising in her support of women. “I don’t want to miss an opportunity to inject my films with the history of women’s achievements—with feminism.” A Million Miles Away is no exception. The film, which takes its title from a song in Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl, features an all-female cast and is peppered with references to feminist works.
In A Million Miles Away, viewers get a glimpse into the lives of several teen girls as they participate in a school choir practice. Their usual teacher is absent, and the substitute teacher presents an interesting figure to the audience, acting as a sort of unreliable narrator throughout the middle of the film. We question her facts but never her sincerity. As the film’s director put it, “Honesty is not always the best policy. Truth makes you vulnerable, and sometimes denying that vulnerability and creating your own reality can be a tool of agency for women.”
The characters in Jennifer Reeder’s films are unsure of themselves yet sweetly fearless. In Blood Below the Skin, we’re shown a developing romance between two teen girls, and in Crystal Lake we encounter a group of radical all-female skaters who take over a local skate park. It’s incredibly refreshing to see coming-of-age portrayed in such an unconventional way—both in subject and approach. This is due, no doubt, to Reeder’s view of coming-of-age as a lifelong process. The characters in each of her films reflect this.
Female friendship is a survival strategy, and solidarity among girls and women is placed at the forefront of Jennifer Reeder’s work. “So many movies highlight cattiness, but in my life I’ve experienced mostly awesome and radically supportive women. Even the bitchiest weird women in times of crisis come through.”
A Million Miles Away had its world premiere at the 2014 Rotterdam Film Festival before screening at Sundance in 2015. It won the grand prize at the Encounters film festival in the UK and the Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, both of which qualified it for Oscar nomination consideration. It is available for public viewing here.
By Juliette Faraone