Bel Powley and Susan Johnson are shattering the Cinderella myth one movie at a time.
The star and director of “Carrie Pilby,” respectively, say they view the idea that a woman’s happiness is dependent on a man as being woefully passé, not to mention unrealistic in an age when women outnumber men.
“I love doing comedy, but it’s hard to find comedies with any substance,” says Powley, who is convincing as the awkward, maladjusted title character. “The fact that the film was directed and produced by women was very attractive to me.” The movie opens Friday.
One year out from graduating from Harvard University, 19-year-old Carrie Pilby — blessed with a superior intellect — is trying to navigate the real world inhabited by people with average IQs and lapsed morals. She’s sure the human race is shallow and oversexed, saying in the film, “Why do I have to read about 101 different ways to have an orgasm everywhere I go?”
“She’s incredibly unique and different,” Powley says. “It was a challenge playing her because she’s really awkward, annoying, rude and cynical.”
Carrie’s misanthropic qualities and high intelligence may invite comparisons to Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s protagonist in “The Catcher in the Rye.” Johnson says Powley struck the right tone in showing how Carrie’s psychological issues manifest themselves, but not coming on too strong. “So many younger actors have this bravado 24/7,” Johnson says. “I wanted her to connect with the audience and for people to have empathy for her.”
Carrie’s sessions with her psychiatrist, Dr. Petrov (Nathan Lane), come with strings attached — all the way to England where her father (Gabriel Byrne) is holed up with his girlfriend. Carrie’s too smart not to realize that daddy’s paying for her shrink and apartment because he’s the one having trouble letting go.
After her father cancels his Thanksgiving visit, sending Carrie into a funk, Petrov suggests making a to-do list involving situations she normally shrinks from. At the top of the list: go on a date.
The man she starts seeing, Matt (Jason Ritter), is using her to decide whether he really wants to marry the woman he’s engaged to. “So, you’re cheating on me with your fiancé,” Carrie says in disbelief when she finds out. Carrie’s subsequent discovery that Petrov is having an affair with a married woman reinforces her dim view of her fellow man.
“Carrie sees the world in terms of black and white,” Powley says. “Matt’s reason for cheating is wrong, but there are massive gray areas in life.”
“The important thing for us to remember is that Carrie’s own happiness has nothing to do with a man,” Johnson says. “Her happiness isn’t made by meeting a man. People are getting that, no, she didn’t marry the guy at the end. It’s not your typical Hollywood ending.”
“It was great having female energy on the set,” Powley says. “Susan is a director who is calm and generous. But, that’s more about Susan.”
Johnson believes the film industry is getting better, but “it’s still a fight that has to be fought. There’s a huge amount of sexism in the industry.”
Powley, who was nominated for a BAFTA award in her native England, says her casting director mother and actor father were unhappy with her chosen profession. “They were disappointed,” Powley says. “They wanted me to be a lawyer.”
By now, Powley has a body of work that does her family proud. The actress rose to fame as Daisy Miller in the CBBC hit children’s TV series, “M.I. High Street.” She nailed the teenager coming-of-age genre with her thoughtful performance in “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” and her Carrie Pilby portrayal put her squarely in the world of young adults.
The 25-year-old Powley’s diminutive height — 5 feet, 2 inches — and round, open face allow her to continue playing teen roles — and meaty ones, at that. In “Wilding,” an elevated horror story, she plays a young woman confined to a single room, and was cast as Matthew McConaughey’s daughter in “White Boy Rick.”
During a well-informed discussion of crack cocaine related to “White Boy,” based on the true story of Richard Wershe Jr., who was an undercover informant at age 14, and arrested and sentenced to life in prison at 17, Powley says, “You mix cocaine with bicarbonate of soda.” “How do you know that?” Johnson asked.
Powley also displays a knowledge of bipolar syndrome, revealing that she cowrote and codirected a 22-minute film last year that explores the disease, starring her best friend. “It’s about a girl who suffers with bipolar,” she says. “It shows the way women with mental health issues are portrayed. People I know suffer from bipolar and there’s a real stigma attached. There’s so much shame.”