Few films have made the kind of impact on feminist-minded moviegoers as Thelma & Louise did when it hit theaters in 1991. Ridley Scott’s story of female friendship and empowerment struck a powerful chord with women (yes, men, too, but let’s let the ladies own this one) — one that still resonates almost three decades later. In the compelling documentary Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise, director Jennifer Townsend, helming her first film at age 80, digs into exactly why the movie had — and continues to have — such an impact.
Shortly after she first saw the film, Townsend started a research project, reaching out to other people who were similarly gobsmacked by the movie and digging into what made it so resonant. In the pre-internet early ’90s, she turned to newspaper classifieds and other non-digital methods to promote her project, then sent out paper questionnaires, which she collected and proceeded to save for years as life got in the way of fulfilling her plans for them.
But it turns out Townsend was preserving the papers for exactly the right purpose: making this film. On camera, her original subjects revisit their answers and recount their memories of the movie and its lasting affect on them. The interviews are intercut with relevant scenes from the film, tracing the evolution of Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) over the course of their fateful road trip.
The result is a thoughtful, well-structured examination of a movie that has become a cultural touchstone. The interviewees — including Townsend — frequently get emotional as they talk about why Thelma & Louise meant so much to them. They share stories of justice denied, powerful personal awakenings, and the value of seeing fully dimensional women on the big screen. They acknowledge ways in which their feelings about the film have shifted, and sometimes softened, with passing time and increased perspective. And they all remember how much the movie meant to them — and still does. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Susan Wloszczyna: What The Godfather means to men, 1991’s Thelma & Louise means to women. It defines the female experience in a way that still resonates when it comes to issues of rape, gender inequality, marriage and how women as a group bond with one another. A man, Ridley Scott, might have directed the road-trip movie but a woman – Callie Khouri — wrote the screenplay and won an Oscar for her efforts. Jennifer Townsend, a first-time director at the age of 80 who is behind the documentary, Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise, had started a research project when the film first opened that reached out to people, female and male, to get their reactions to the movie. She now doubles back years later to see how they changed — or not — about how they feel about the film. And the results are rather fascinating, as the respondents reflect on the impact of the film in the age of the #MeToo era. Pour a glass of wine and pretend you are at a book club meeting, except you are discussing a rather revolutionary film. It helps that several of the men connected to the film – editor Thom Noble as well as actors Christopher McDonald as Thelma’s husband Daryl and Marco St. John as the lascivious trucker who gets his tanker blown up – participate in the talk.
Loren King Thelma and Louise was more than a riveting movie; it hit the cultural zeitgeist when it was released in 1991 and profoundly impacted its core audience — women. One of them, Jennifer Townsend, was so stirred by the film, she conducted a survey of women’s responses. took out ads seeking responses to a mailed questionnaire about the film. Years later,the results of that survey are revealed in this engaging documentary. Read full review.
Nell Minow: It is as moving to see the women in this film respond to their younger selves’ responses to “Thelma and Louise” as it is to hear the responses themselves, both 25 years ago, when the film was released, and now, with all of the life experience and cultural changes over the past quarter century.
Marilyn Ferdinand: There are watershed moments in history, and for many adult moviegoers in 1991, Thelma & Louise was one of them. The film’s screenwriter, Callie Khouri, penned a road movie that had the revolutionary twist of centering on the friendship of the title women, played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. Women who saw the film on its release eagerly sought it out again and again because it told the truth of their lives and the lives of their friends. One of those frequent viewers was Jennifer Townsend, whose fascination with the movie caused her to reach out to other fans with a questionnaire about what the movie meant to them. It wasn’t until 25 years later that Townsend went back to those questionnaires to reexamine the submissions; she then decided to contact some of the people who sent them in and give them a chance to reflect on the film and their younger selves. The result is the assured and emotionally resonant documentary Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise. Delving into each chapter of the film with clips and the reactions of these viewers and some of the people who appeared in the film helps Townsend pinpoint how the fictional journey became a consciousness-raising event for the characters and the viewers. The documentary is an emotionally charged look at what has and hasn’t changed for women since Thelma and Louise hit the road.
MaryAnn Johanson Oh, I love this movie so much! So much more than I was expecting just hearing what it was about. I love how all the “talking heads” here are just women talking about their own lives. I mean, many of them are authority figures — lawyers, professors, etc — but they speak from personal knowledge and experience, not with academic or professional distance. I love the introspection going on here, from the women (and a few men) reexamining their quarter-century-ago reactions to Thelma & Louise and agreeing with their past selves, or even finding that they are angrier still today. There’s *so much* going on here about how women grow into themselves and their feminism. And there’s so much to be learned — yet again — about how feminism moves *so slowly.* This is a #MeToo from long before #MeToo, but here we see — yet again! (I feel like I’m saying this a lot lately) — that feminism is and always has been about retreading the same path our foremothers have taken because those paths get weeded over from neglect. It’s disheartening to be reminded how little has changed in 25 years when it comes to a woman’s place in the world. But maybe with *enough* reminders of this, the needle will start to shift. I can but hope…
Jennifer Merin This female-helmed documentary is all about women in film and the effect femme-centric films can have on women’s lives. Jennifer Townsend, at age 80, gives Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise, her first film. It’s a personal commentary about how the original Thelma & Louise movie, the Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis starrer, changed her life and impacted the lives of millions of women who found — and still find — liberation in this iconic story about the friendship between the two titular characters. Townsend’s interviews with women from all walks of recounting their personal encounters with Thelma & Louise are intercut with illustrative scenes from the film. The expression of widely varied opinions about the film’s ending are particularly interesting. While entertaining you, Townsend’s well-researched and beautifully composed documentary challenges you to recall and reflect upon your own responses to Thelma & Louise, and to remind us that movies really do influence the ways in which women think about ourselves and our lots in life.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Jennifer Townsend’s directorial debut (at age 80!) is the insightful documentary, Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise – an exploration of how the seminal feminist 1991 movie (directed by Ridley Scott and written by Academy Award winner Callie Khouri) affected women (and men) shortly after the movie’s release and again now. Townsend had saved research surveys she had collected in the early ’90s about the film and followed up with a group of respondents, who are now 25+ years older than when they initially wrote their reactions. Townsend also interviews supporting cast and crew (Christopher McDonald, Marco St. John, and Thom Noble) about their reflections on the production. Although I wish the group of interviewees was slightly more diverse, this is an intelligent look at why Thelma & Louise is such a landmark film.
Cate Marquis That Jennifer Townsend is releasing her first film at age 80 makes it as much a blow against ageism as a feminist accomplishment. That the subject of her fine documentary is the iconic film Thelma & Louise makes it that much better. Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise looks at how the movie, which became a pop culture icon of feminism and a catch-phrase as well, impacted women at the time of its release and now in the #MeToo era. Soon after Thelma & Louise opened in theaters, it became an object of controversy. Jennifer Townsend designed a project to gauge women’s reactions to the film. She gathered surveys asking women for commentary on the film and analysis of their reactions to it. But the project languished unfinished for years, until Townsend revisited the idea and decided to make a film based on it. Getting in touch with women who had responded to the survey, Townsend asked them to revisit their earlier answers. Also adding a few additional voices, Townsend’s documentary presents project participants reading their early reactions and discussing what has and hasn’t changed in their thoughts about the film. Interspersed throughout are scenes from the film, commentary from the director,and remembrances from supporting cast and crew who worked on the film. Altogether, it makes a pleasant and thoughtful way to revisit a film that opened the door to a different way of showing women on screen.
Title: Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise
Directors: Jennifer Townsend
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Running Time: 87 minutes
Screenwriter: Jennifer Townsend (documentary)
Distribution Company: Far Beyond Film
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna