Film Review – Ladyworld (2019)
In its synopsis, Ladyworld is described as a female version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which takes place at a birthday party. You can imagine how my curiosity was piqued after that description, since I love movies that subvert standard female narratives.
I wanted to like the film, but I felt that it was overwhelmed by its stylistic touches, and doesn’t give the viewer enough substance to hold on to. It is a film that would probably be a film student’s wet dream, and in the process neglects the regular viewer, which is a shame given the themes it is trying to explore.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Amanda Kramer
Written By: Amanda Kramer and Benjamin Shearn
Starring: Ariela Barer, Annalise Basso, Ryan Simpkins, Odessa Adlon, Maya Hawke, Tatsumi Romano, Zora Casebere, Atheena Frizzell and Noel David Taylor
When a violent earthquake leaves them cut off from the outside world, eight teenage girls attending a birthday party find themselves trapped in an underground apartment. As their isolation breeds paranoia, the gang becomes divided, battling against each other to maintain a sense of control in a seemingly hopeless situation. And it’s a situation made worse when one of the girls claims to have seen a mysterious man lurking in the basement. What begins as a neat female twist on Lord of the Flies mutates into something far more beguiling and infinitely more unknowable.
While I was watching Ladyworld, it reminded me very much of a theater space, with the symbolic use of costuming in addition to the physicality and choreographed presence the girls seemed to embody. This is intentional, seeing as how Kramer has a theater background, and this influenced how she set up the spaces in her film.
When thinking about the film, she knew it was going to be about rape phobia. Essentially, when women transition from being girls to becoming a woman, we suddenly see ourselves as sexual beings, and with that brings the fear of a man wanting to touch or even rape us. The film was conceived before the popularity of the #MeToo movement, but its release comes at the right moment, considering the prevalence of the movement and how it has brought issues regarding rape culture to the forefront.
I am not a fan of films that go for a sole allegorical purpose. Oftentimes, they rely too much on the symbolic meaning the film is supposed to convey, without considering that this symbolic meaning is made all the more impactful if you attach it to a proper narrative. A recent film that does this to its detriment is mother!. Viewers don’t want to be pretentiously told that this is what a film means. The film should give us enough to drive us to want to know what it is trying to say, without coming across as too didactic. A movie that handled this a bit better is First Reformed, where we are still given an emotional tether to the characters, and not left clinging to a buoy far out at sea.
Ladyworld is pure allegory. We have 8 characters, and all these characters are meant to flesh out different portrayals of being a woman. We have the mean girls, who are over-sexualized with their heavy made-up faces and their skimpy and silky outfits, symbolically relegating themselves to the bedroom. On the other end, there are the girls who play it safe, following a rational perspective, just focusing on being rescued, who dominate the other spaces, in particular, the kitchen. Obviously, this is meant to point out the Whore-Virgin dichotomy that women are often confined to.
Despite these diverging roles, what unites them all is this sense of madness. As time passes, they become more and more unhinged, descending into a kind of hysteria. The viewer is meant to feel uncomfortable by this depiction of tribalistic girls, chanting and dancing, reminding us of witches in their conception. But after a while, I felt a tad bit bored. The film wasn’t showing me anything I haven’t seen before. Madness and womanhood have been tied together for as long as we have had wombs, since it was believed that our wombs are the source of our madness. The displays by the girls looked like madness, but didn’t feel like madness. It felt like little girls playing dress-up.
Rape Phobia and Culture
Throughout the film, there is the constant mention of ‘The Man’. He is spotted by one of the characters, who freaks out after seeing him, and this delirium spreads to the rest as well. They are initially fearful of him, because they are just girls, and recognize their vulnerability in the face of men. This is a valid reflection of how it is in the world today. There is an emphasized need for women to protect our bodies from men, to fear what they could very easily do to us.
In Ladyworld, this fear overwhelms the girls to the point that they start arming themselves with knives (felt like a phallic reference), to get ‘The Man’ before he gets them. But ‘The Man’ has no palpable presence, he is the bogeyman that the girls scream and work themselves into a frenzy about, but remains imaginary in a sense.
I was a bit worried when I saw a cat in this movie, considering what happens to the pig in Lord of the Flies; and because of the way the movie functions, the cat feels more than just a cat. At one point, Piper (lead Mean girl) starts to mimic the cat’s movements, and the same girl covers the cat under layers of blankets and clothing. Is the movie trying to say that society stifles a woman’s sexuality? (Note: Think about the innuendo associated with cats.) This is why I don’t like it when there is too much symbolism going on, because I don’t know if the cat is just a cat or is a representation of something else.
Ladyworld‘s soundscape is a unique thing. Kramer uses women’s voices to create tension to her film, with a variety of sounds — like gasping and cat-like yowls (See! The cat is significant) — inundating the space. There is even the sound of some kind of hellish cacophony, that builds and builds, before abruptly cutting off. On one hand, I do think that the sound succeeded in creating tension and adding texture to the film, but after I got used to the sounds, they lost their impact. I think this is the main issue of the movie. It is too consistent and predictable in its presentation, so much so that you don’t feel anything at the climax of the film, even though you wish you did.
When we think about the presentation of women in media, our general contribution is that of beauty, with beauty also something we want to maintain. All we have to do is look at the number of beauty products we purchase in an attempt to keep ourselves youthful looking for as long as possible. The pervasive and excessive use of make-up in the film contributes to this idea as well.
The girls discuss how beauty is this oppressive thing, a kind of baggage we carry with us. Beauty in itself is empty, but beauty coupled with ugliness then becomes interesting. Symbolically, this is represented by all the wilting flowers in the film; flowers on the verge of death has more meaning than just regular flowers in a vase.
This, I think, is Kramer’s main intention with Ladyworld, with girls running amok and in madness, embodying a destructive kind of beauty. She wants to free us from this association of prettiness and niceness that we have inherited over time. The general consensus is that a gender-flip of Lord of the Flies won’t work because women would get along and play nice. But that’s assumptive. Femininity has been shown to be this soft, vulnerable thing for so long, that we forget that women are just as capable of perversity as men are.
Simone de Beauvoir famously said: “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.” This quote draws attention to how constructed the role of a woman is in society. Until today, we are still struggling to try to figure out who we are and how to negotiate between the different roles we are expected to take on. We want to embrace our sexuality, yet are told consistently to hide our bodies and be conservative, because if something happens to it, then it is our fault — having asked for it. The world is not our oyster but rather, a minefield that we have to carefully maneuver our way through.
This is the powerful thing about Kramer’s film, because it opens the floor for such important discussions. However, can these discussions take place when viewers get too caught up in trying to dissect the film’s Easter egg offerings? Films like Ladyworld need to find a way to be more accessible so that it can be palatable to a wider group of people. The viewers need to relate to these characters, and not be hoping that these annoying girls would just be buried by another earthquake.
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