The rub in evaluating a film about sexism, abortion, poverty, or any serious personal (yet universal) subject is that a verdict of “poor” or “cheesy” runs the risk of carrying a barbed attack at those who find value in said film. It’s a factor in reviewing rape-revenge films such as “Promising Young Woman,” where a male-written review calling such a story “sick” raises hackles in sexual assault survivors who find catharsis in that (fictional) extra-judicial retribution. Such is the peril in reflecting upon “Women Is Losers,” Lissette Feliciano’s feature debut “inspired by real women” that follows Celina Guerrera (Lorenza Izzo), a promising young Catholic schoolgirl who weathers the slings and arrows that life brings down upon her from romance to pregnancy to struggle and ultimately, survival. Abortion and the purview over women’s bodies is a muddled subject, but Feliciano is up for the daunting task of discerning between poor choices and the inability to make educated ones.
“Women is Losers” starts with a place setting (San Francisco, 1972) and a disclaimer: as Celina calls her cheating husband Mateo (Bryan Craig) to account, she pauses the public scene to turn towards the camera and assert that the film won’t have the best lighting or the most streetwise costumes, promising “We’ll tell you a story about making do with what you’ve got.” But the costumes and lighting are just fine, especially for an indie feature. This motif repeats from end to end, peppering narrative with gratuitous cheek to illustrate the other America—the one that the American Dream hawkers don’t mention in the brochure.
Feliciano wastes no time throwing her components into the melting pot. Celina and bestie Martina (Chrissie Fit of the “Pitch Perfect” films) pass notes in school and frolic with handsome men in uniform, leading to pregnancies for each of the teens. A back alley abortion later, tragedy has struck and Celina soldiers on to raise her child with little help. In the same way that an abuse survivor is put through the wringer to display how insidiously awful the Irish housing system is in Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself.”
Celina seems to hold out hope after she gets a menial job at a bank but her own mother Dona Carolina (Alejandra Miranda) insists that Celina leaves her job to come take care of her baby– a task Carolina agreed to do, apparently, because the young woman earns most of the household income. When she says that she could get fired, her mama says, “That’s your problem. No one told you to have a kid,” an echo of the real-life rallying cry given unto young mothers in need. By the time the story concludes, “Women is Losers” caps with a radio announcement of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, a decision that would have eliminated all of the tragedy witnessed for the 84-minute runtime, which is part of its power— seeing a microcosm of the suffering that has resulted from the policing of women and their bodies serves to highlight the suffering that could be snuffed out if the world wasn’t so invested in upholding dusty old power dynamics.
The cast, all around, handles the melodrama with weight and authenticity. Izzo could drown in the saccharine writing but holds her own well, conveying more in a pained wince than an entire Ferris Bueller-esque monologue which points back to the redundancy in the film’s beginning. Celina spearheads a series of moments in which, during a moving conversation clearly constructed to illustrate some kind of social disparity, she or a participant pivots towards the camera to hammer home the point of the conversation. The oscillation between 4th wall breaks and heavy socio-cultural interrogations makes it difficult to gain consistent emotional purchase; Feliciano should have trusted her actors more. The music she orchestrated has already given the message, and the rest is just noise.
When Celina asks for birth control, a small cadre of authority figures decide to help in the best way they know how—by slut-shaming, calling her body innately sinful and filthy, and offering to pray for her. An interesting choice in this montage is making two of these figures women: her mother (Miranda) and a nun (Liisa Cohen), respectively. This is not to pit women against one another in a catty way, but effectively making each a representation of a system or institution that historically contributes to teen pregnancy. They’re not the only representatives—a male employer (Simu Liu), a toxic baby daddy (Craig), and an abusive father (Steven Bauer) are there to convey how male-dominated the machine is, and how the machine prioritizes their upward mobility but few else. It’s a lightly touched-upon reminder that women can perpetuate the machine, too. Displaying the generational and religious trauma that factor into women’s “one step forward, two steps back” progress is messy, but mess is nuance and this subject demands both.
“Women is Losers” finds the bootstraps mindset to be possible and admirable but asserts that many boots are threadbare to begin with, and a journey with busted boots is possible but the road is a lot smoother for those born with a clear path and new kicks. The story is messy, but so is survival in a world invested in your failure. The homogenization of progress in prestige dramas (specifically built for Academy Voter palettes) got us “Green Book,” but if the suits can stay out of Feliciano’s way, defanged pablum doesn’t have to be the only thing on the marquee. She swings big and a few whiffs are bound to happen, but the craft and authenticity is present. It’ll be a treat to chart Feliciano’s trajectory.