The Criterion Channel’s latest movie is the 1970 film, Wanda, a film now appreciated as a masterpiece in American independent cinema. Directed, written, and starring the late Barbara Loden, Wanda follows the titular character through Pennsylvania as she faces difficulty at her every attempt to make a life for herself after divorcing her husband and losing custody of her children. She slowly walks around her Rust Belt town wearing her hair curlers for the first twenty minutes and offers a perfect introduction into the protagonist’s circumstances—her walk resembles not of someone aimless but of someone who has nowhere to go and no one to go to.
Wanda then comes upon Mr. Dennis, a 50-something robber, while he is in the middle of robbing a bar, which she is unaware of. Wanda has spoken very few words at this point. As Mr. Dennis takes her on the road, Wanda finally begins to speak more. Her newfound openness, while still not much, isn’t met with much regard from Mr. Dennis, played by Michael Higgins. It becomes clear as soon as they settle into a motel room shortly after meeting that Dennis is no different than the other men Wanda encounters: they only seek to take something from her. Each time Wanda questions his criminal actions, even if only out of curiosity rather than suspicion, he degrades her and threatens to leave her stranded in the middle of nowhere.
What’s extraordinary about Loden’s lone feature is how it forces the viewer to pay attention to a character that society pays no mind to. From the start, with her soon-to-be ex-husband declaring how pitiful she is at their divorce hearing, Wanda is determined to be undeserving of help or compassion by those around her. Men take from her without giving anything in return and expect her to be grateful for their supposed generosity. Yet, the outrageous manner in which Wanda is treated never takes attention away from the film’s main subject. As we get to know her during her scheme-filled journey with Mr. Dennis, it becomes abundantly clear that, while she is passive, all Wanda wants is a chance at life as herself. But, she has never truly had the strength, opportunity, or stability to demand better—much like many women of the past and present.
The film’s vérité style is jarring at first. Admittedly, for a moment I believed I was watching the wrong film, shocked by how much it might resemble a home video or documentary. But, it’s easy to adjust to the stylistic choice as it serves Wanda and Loden’s portrayal of the character splendidly. Loden breathes truth and reality into a character that many might have portrayed as nothing more than a pitiful creature. Loden refrains from sugarcoating the film and its primary performance provides audiences with a grounded example of a woman floating through life as a mode of survival. Wanda is Loden’s only feature-film as a director and she didn’t make another film before her death in 1982. If she was able to pack so much life into such a soft-spoken, unseen character in her first film, it’s difficult not to wonder what else she could have done.
Criterion Reviews is a series of short 500-word reviews of films released every week by Criterion Channel until the channel officially launches on April 8th. Don’t forget to sign up for the channel and support them!