Girlfriends by Claudia Weill

We discover the pre-Girls Girls, in the form of Claudia Weill's 1978 Girlfriends, an acerbic and witty portrayal of mid-twenties life in Manhattan

Who: Director Claudia Weill’s unsung 1978 feature Girlfriends, is the tale of two flatmates growing up and growing apart in New York. Inevitable comparisons are Frances Ha in pre-gentrified Manhattan, with less dance montages and much bigger hair. Or Girls circa the late 70s. But really, it’s a one-off, cherishable gem all its own.

What: Struggling photographer Susan (Melanie Mayron) shoots weddings and bar mitzvahs to cover the rent, while navigating her way through the SoHo art scene, awkward parties, floundering friendships and romantic entanglements. When her best friend gets married and moves upstate into apparent domestic bliss, Susan feels untethered and abandoned to her more precarious life in the city. The action unfolds in a grimy downtown where Susan inhabits a makeshift apartment – flowered curtains too short for the windows, Hershey bars in the fridge, negatives cooling in the bathroom – while chasing her big break. Watch out for a young Christopher Guest as one of Susan’s romances, and their brilliantly written argument over mashed potato. Laced with naturalistic, insightful comedy and a beguiling spontaneity, the film was acclaimed by Stanley Kubrick on its release, and more recently by Lena Dunham, who discovered a kindred spirit in Weill and has since invited her to direct an episode of Girls.

Why? I am Dora curator Jemma Desai is putting on a special screening of Girlfriends at the BFI – the first in the UK since 1978 – where audiences will receive an envelope of letters and poetry relating to the film, and a strip of passport photos as seen in the opening credits. “It was important to me that Susan be the girl that’s not normally the protagonist – not the pretty, blonde, breezy one that everybody adores,” Weill tells Desai. “She is that girl’s best friend...  The best friend is always funnier and men are usually less attracted to her because she’s either overweight, not as gorgeous or not as oriented towards pleasing them. I was very interested in making a movie about that girl because that’s who I am and making films was just my way of figuring life out.” Weill shot Girlfriends entirely independently over a year on a shoe-string budget and became the third woman to be admitted to the Academy.

Girlfriends is at the BFI on April 13. Film clip is courtesy of Park Circus/Warner Bros.

Text by Hannah Lack