Perhaps one of Nora Ephron's most enduring legacies is her archetype-busting on-screen renditions of women. More than a few young female writers have taken up this torch, and one among them is Zoe Kazan, a Yale graduate, actress, and screenwriter who has already filled her resume with impressive, subversive roles.
Her most recent character is one she has written for herself, and the profile gives us some insight into what Kazan's future body of work might look like. In Kazan's Ruby Sparks, a fantasy-romance directed by the duo who made Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the character at the film's epicenter is a young writer who muses about his dream girl as a way to beat back his writer's block. The twist is that the girl comes to life.
It's easy to see where the character of Ruby Sparks may fall into the same archetypal trenches as other millenial female characters in these types of "indie" films. Ruby is literally created by her romantic partner, making her a giant conglomeration of a man's fantasies. But, as discussed in Kazan's recent interview with Time, Kazan is more than aware of this archetype -- one that Nathan Rabin famously called the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl". Movies like 500 Days of Summer and Garden State feature quirky, off-beat love interests that, besides being drawn entirely within the male gaze, dubiously present themselves as richer alternatives to the traditional female love interest archetype.
As Kazan explains, the manic pixie dream girl archetype is as limiting to female characters as any other, and the term itself can be used to lump together very different profiles: "It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality." A girl who listens to and actually likes The Smiths? There's the audience clue that she must be deep, compelling, and different from all other girls who listen to, well, frivolous music.
We are presented with these tidbits that masquerade as real characterization, but the female figures in many of these roles are just as flat as traditional "Honey...!" characters. Take Zooey Deschanel's character in (500) Days of Summer. She's so idealized by the male protagonist that we don't ever learn anything about her ambitions, interests (beyond music tastes), or desires. At the conclusion of the film, our protagonist transforms his heartbreak into a quest to achieve his dream of becoming an architect, and the last scene features him at an interview for an architectural firm. Summer, on the other hand, gets married, with no mention of any other sphere of her life.
Kazan therefore tows a delicate line, one that she seems keenly aware of. I'm eagerly awaiting this new movie, which comes out in limited release today, to see how this is handled. For such an individualistic young woman, my prediction is that Zoe Kazan will have crafted a female protagonist that is equally as complex and idiosyncratic as she is.