7 films that explore what it’s like to be a girl in new york city

A compilation of documentaries and feature films that follow young women navigating the complexities of life in NYC, from Bed-Stuy brownstones to ballrooms in Harlem.

by Emily Manning
31 August 2016, 5:45pm

Kids: The godfather of NYC coming-of-age films focuses primarily on the nihilistic exploits of 40-swiping skater Casper and "virgin surgeon" Telly. But a far more interesting aspect of the film is its portrayal of girlhood. Anchored by Rosario Dawson's Ruby and Chloë Sevigny's Jennie, the film's female storylines illustrate sex, friendship, family struggles, and the experience of living in downtown Manhattan with gripping authenticity. In one of the film's most enduring scenes, director Larry Clark intercuts between groups of teenage boys and girls congregating to dish about sex. Almost every assertion the dudes make about their conquests is immediately undermined by the young women; the scene depicts the girls as honest, supportive, clever, humorous, vulnerable, but still tough as nails New Yorkers.

All This Panic: Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton's first film was among the standouts at last year's Tribeca Film Festival. Shot over three and a half years, the documentary follows seven Brooklyn female friends as they grow up, dream, go out, make out, and figure out their futures. Its ensemble cast lacks the grittiness of Clark's downtown troupe, but All This Panic's girls weather difficult moments, too. They struggle to get jobs, consider queer identities — one even battles with homelessness after her parents' divorce. "Without talking to each other, they all individually told us that they were willing to do anything except talk negatively about each other," Betterton told i-D upon the film's release. "There was no way we were going to be able to direct a movie in which they fought and tore each other down."

Related: 'All This Panic' might be the most honest documentary about teenage girlhood ever

Pariah: The critically adored 2011 drama follows Alike, a 17-year-old year old living in Brooklyn's Fort Greene and navigating her identity as a lesbian. While she has supportive queer friends and access to spaces in the city, her family is a source of anxiety and oppression. Her religious mother, Audrey, pushes more feminine clothing on Alike, attempts to dissolve her friendship with openly lesbian Laura, and encourages her to instead hang with Bina (a girl from church who, unbeknownst to Audrey, is bi-curious). One of the film's chief strengths, Adam Sewer argued in a Mother Jones review, is its authenticity as a black coming-of-age film. "Pariah's unique milieu is most apparent in how Rees' movie seems unconcerned with white people. Her cinematic eye rarely leaves the faces of its subjects, let alone the Brooklyn neighborhood where Pariah takes place," Sewer writes. "That focus is an implicit reminder that although black people's relationship to white people remains a central drama in American film, it is not necessarily all that central to how most black people actually live their everyday lives."

White Girl: Elizabeth Wood's directorial debut is a descendent of Kids (and not simply because the projects share a producer: Killer Films' Christine Vachon). As with Clark's opus, no-holds-bard authenticity is also what makes Wood's film a wildly controversial standout. White Girl follows two caucasian 19-year-olds (played by Morgan Saylor and India Menuez) who move to Queens, mix themselves up with drug dealing, and attempt to navigate the criminal justice system when shit goes awry. In some ways, these protagonists are closer to Clark's boys than his girls: they are much more confident than knowledgeable, they are the privileged ones (at least for a time), and they are not all that sympathetic. But they are very real.

Related: Elizabeth Wood on her explosive directorial debut, 'White Girl'

Paris Is Burning: Jennie Livingston's 1990 film is one of the most highly regarded documentaries of all time, and a unique window into New York's dynamic ballroom scene. Its cast of characters are predominantly lower-income queer and trans New Yorkers of color, for whom ballroom spaces are not only safe, but also vital to their creative expression and self-actualization. The documentary is more than a portrait of artistry, humor, and talent; it's a complex sketch of gender, race, sexuality, and socioeconomics. Perhaps the film's most valuable component is its representation of the trans community — particularly through Italian American and Puerto Rican performer Venus Xtravaganza, who is among the more sharp-witted, discerning voices in the film despite her young age. She speaks powerfully about experiencing transphobia, the exchange-economy of sex work (a segment of which is sampled on Dev Hynes' album Freetown Sound), and her ambition to become "a spoiled, rich, white girl." The film's aim is neither to be a coming-of-age story nor a representation of girlhood, but thanks to its focus on typically marginalized voices, its audience gleans a valuable perspective about navigating gender identity in the city.

Crooklyn: Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing — which sees simmering racial tensions come to a violent head in Bed-Stuy on the hottest day of the year — is considered one of the greatest of all time. The piece portrays gentrification, bigotry, and more subliminal prejudices with incredible nuance, but its female characters arguably lack similarly considered perspectives or weighty voices. One of Lee's later films, 1994's Crooklyn, is also set in Bed-Stuy. Its central character is not a 25-year-old pizza delivery boy, but a nine-year-old girl, Troy Carmichael. Set in 1973, the semi-autobiographical film follows Troy as she discovers difficult lessons about being a woman in today's world — often remaining stoic and focused when shouldering the responsibilities of her brothers.

Heaven Knows What: While brothers Josh and Benny Safdie were researching a different project in New York's Diamond District, they met Arielle Holmes, a young recovering heroin addict. The Safdies were so captivated by Holmes' story that they encouraged her to chronicle her experiences in a memoir. Holmes' writings have yet to be published, but the brothers adapted her work into a film, and cast her to play its lead. Heaven Knows What's protagonist — a young junkie named Harley who crashes in Upper West Side flophouses and subway cars, steals gift cards from postal workers to sell for smack, and clings to a failing romance with fellow dope fiend, Ilya — is a lightly fictionalized version of Holmes herself. "The use of New York as a character is a cliche you hear at screening Q&As, but has rarely been so apt," Jordan Hoffman wrote in his Guardian review. "What's so extraordinary, and realistic, is how everyone just strides past the drama. As one who has lived in this town for pretty much his entire life, I can't tell you how easy it is to blaze past a couple like Harley and Ilya screaming at each other," Hoffman writes.

Who run the world? As our latest issue places a female lens over the world, join the discussion as we explore what it means to be a woman today and peer through a kaleidoscopic take on the female gaze.


Text Emily Manning

White Girl
Heaven Knows What
all this panic
The Female Gaze Issue