Top 10 Debut Feature Films by Women

23 Feb 2018 in Film Features

6 mins
Lady Bird - Soairse Ronan
Lady Bird - Soairse Ronan

Actor, writer and director Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is one of the most acclaimed debut features for many years. Set in the early 2000s, and loosely based on Gerwig's own experiences, it tells the story of seventeen year old Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (a fabulous performance from Saoirse Ronan). Lady Bird is a young woman growing up in suburban Sacramento, dreaming of the liberation she feels college and a big city will offer her. Taking place over the course of her final year in high school, her first loves, friendships, and college applications are all explored. 

One of the film's many strengths is how developed so many of the supporting characters are, including sensitive theatre-geek Danny, and too-cool-for-school Kyle, played by rising stars Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet respectively. However, the heart of the story are Lady Bird's relationships with her mild-mannered father, and the more tempestuous one with her overbearing mother, Marion. 

Lady Bird has immediately become a huge hit with audiences and critics for its warm, witty tone, and also its sharp insights into the experiences of teenagers (and the pressures of raising them) and the universal conflict between the lure of the unknown and the comfort of the familiar.

Gerwig has now become the first woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar® for her debut feature film. Her well-deserved success has inspired Joe and Michael from our curation team to look at ten more wonderful first films from female filmmakers.

Desiree Akhavan

New York City-born Akhavan wrote, directed and starred in her first film, Appropriate Behaviour, a semi-autobiographical story of a bisexual Persian woman named Shirin living in Brooklyn, blundering her way through life and attempting to make sense of the apparent culture clash at the centre of it. Shirin must negotiate sexuality, religion and family as she attempts to work out just who she is in this charming comedy-drama. Her impending second film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is a "gay conversion" therapy drama set for big things after it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival.

Haifaa Al-Mansour

Haifaa Al-Mansour made history in 2013 by becoming the first female director in Saudi Arabia to ever make a feature film. That film was Wadjda, a remarkable story about a young girl who refuses to let the fact that she's a girl stop her from doing the things she wants to do. Acclaimed around the world and moving audiences of all ages, it is one of the most empowering children's films of the 21st century. Next up is an eagerly anticipated biopic of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.

Elizabeth Banks

Actor, producer and director Elizabeth Banks' feature filmmaking debut was with franchise sequel Pitch Perfect 2, the highest profile and biggest box office success on this list. Banks' female-fronted musical-comedy placed mother and daughter relationships at the heart of its story, culminating in a genuinely stirring sequence which places emphasis on remembering the trailblazers of the past. Her next project is set to be a reboot of TV show Charlie's Angels, another franchise which places strong women at the centre.

Clio Barnard

Clio Barnard burst onto the scene with The Arbor, a character portrait of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. The film combines fact and fiction to tell the story of a talented young woman who wrote witty plays inspired by her life on a tough council estate until her untimely death at the age of 29. Interviews recorded with Dunbar's family and friends are lip-synced using actors, and combined with archive footage, with the director BAFTA-nominated for her work. Barnard has since made two fiction films, The Selfish Giant in 2014 and 2018's Dark River, released in cinemas at the same time as Lady Bird.

Sofia Coppola 

A former child actor, Sofia Coppola's debut The Virgin Suicidesthe tragic story of five sisters sheltered by their strict parents from interacting with the outside world - established her as one of the most exciting filmmakers of her generation. The film, with its iconic soundtrack by French band Air, also demonstrated an infectious love and respect for popular culture, particularly that which focuses on stories of young femininity, rebellion and feelings of isolation, all subjects Coppola subsequently explored in Lost In TranslationMarie AntoinetteThe Bling Ring and The Beguiled.

Destiny Ekaragha

Destiny Ekaragha's first and only feature film to date, Gone Too Far! is a South London-set culture clash comedy in which two estranged teenage brothers meet for the first time and struggle to accept each other for who they really are. Yemi looks forward to Ikudayisi joining him in Peckham from Nigeria, but when he arrives, he's not at all what Yemi expects. Over the course of a single day a series of misunderstandings sees them become lost in this perceptive, funny film which looks at identity, self-respect and community.

Jennifer Kent

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent wrote and directed her first feature film in 2014, the cult horror phenomenon The Babadook. This low-budget, stripped-down genre film is a superb demonstration of how to build tension and frighten audiences by playing on everyday fears related to family, mental health and isolation, using a simple but scary children's book creature to do so. Next up she has an 1825 Australian-set drama, following a young female convict who seeks revenge for her family's murder, which is set to star British actor Sam Claflin.

Carol Morley 

Carol Morley began her filmmaking career by capturing in unflinching detail her struggles with addiction as a young woman in The Alcohol Years - experiences largely recalled by placing adverts in local newspapers for anybody who remembered her to get in touch. Her behaviour at the time was often reprehensible, but Morley turns this dark period of her life into something deeply moving, also capturing the unique Mancunian spirit of the early 1980s. She continued documentary filmmaking with Dreams of a Life before moving into fiction film with enigmatic coming of age film The Falling

Lynne Ramsey

Lynne Ramsey's Ratcatcher is a film of remarkable sensitivity. It is also a tough but insightful examination of adolescence and emotional hardship, themes she has returned to throughout her career. Ramsey's debut, which was favourably compared to Ken Loach's Kes, also reveals her ability to create genuinely beautiful imagery, resulting in a haunting film that stays with anybody who encounters it. She is now one of Britain's most important directors, following titles such as Morvern Callar and the haunting adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin

Céline Schiamma

Few writers and directors have demonstrated as acute an ear for the dialogue of young people - and an empathy for the various issues many of them experience - as French filmmaker Céline Schiamma. Her debut feature, Water Lilies, is typical of this: a lyrical love triangle between three teenage girls set over one hazy summer in a Parisian suburb. Her other films include GirlhoodTomboy and My Life As A Courgette, proving her ability to understand children and young people across all ages, class and genders.

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