This review is part of a double feature on the film Surviving Me: The Nine Circles of Sophie. Please check out Danielle Winston’s interview with writer and director Leah Yananton.
Surviving Me: The Nine Circles of Sophie (2016). United States, 105 minutes. Directed by Leah Yananton. Starring Christine Ryndak, Leah Yananton, Vincent Piazza, Fredric Lehne, and Mira Furlan.
Two women, cramped in the narrow space between tall looming bookshelves, lean together over a fragile, ancient book.
“Passion can come after suffering a great deal,” the young college-aged woman murmurs.
“Just as suffering can come from great passion,” her middle-aged companion replies with a knowing glance.
The tension between these two women is palpable as soft foreboding music swells. The camera, hand-held, peeks around corners and over shoulders into this intimate moment as the women’s discussion toes the line between theoretical and personal.
This scene is one of many in the provocative and smart film Surviving Me: The Nine Circles of Sophie by first-time filmmaker Leah Yananton that blends the creeds of ancient texts with the modern drama of being a normal girl. Such a complex theme is no small feat. It demands strong, clear, and engaging writing, which the film consistently delivers.
Surviving Me chronicles the descent of aspiring poet and college junior Sophie (Christine Ryndak) into her very own version of Dante’s Inferno, as she navigates moral and sexual uncertainties amid the shifting tides within the three main relationships in the film: that with her best friend, her boyfriend and her professor. Deeply in debt and longing for love, Sophie’s wrong decisions and bad turns push her deeper into a pit of self-pity and despair from which she must learn how to recover.
Surviving Me sets itself apart from films that share the same backdrop. Although college is often heralded as a time of self-discovery, sexual experimentation, and rude awakenings, there are surprisingly few college films that tackle these themes. Many popular movies that have a college setting focus on raging, alcohol-fueled parties (21 and Over, Neighbors, Animal House) or the trials and triumphs of exceptionally gifted people (A Beautiful Mind, The Social Network, Good Will Hunting).
Although her film features elements of exceptionalism and partying, Yananton takes a step back from the extremes in these films and instead elicits powerful, conflicting emotion from the downward spiral of a female student confronting problems that countless others have faced: student debt, sexual confusion, and uncertainty about the future. For our protagonist, and thereby the audience, these problems are of paramount importance as they lead her to make decisions that have the power to change the course of her life.
Yet, it’s not all darkness and despair. Yananton weaves joy, humor, relatable awkward situations and passion into the ups and downs of Sophie’s story. Her boyfriend pushes down too hard on her hair during sex; her best friend, with a grin, advises her sit on her professor’s face because “it could be poetic.” Such instances add an element of fun and light-heartedness to an otherwise serious tale.
Sex and morality play an intriguing role in the film as well. “They say romance is dead, and hooking up, you know, sex with no strings attached, is the norm,” Sophie bemoans at the beginning of the film. “But I refuse to believe that people would be so shallow. As if consumerism was at a personal level now. After all, college is a place for idealism.”
Idealism is certainly the goal for the wayward Sophie. “I will pursue my dreams at all costs,” she thinks to herself while sitting in a highly symbolic church. As the film progresses, it becomes evident that these costs include hurting the people she is closest to, people that care for her, for the sake of her own desires. These actions make Sophie a less than likeable character. And that is entirely okay.
A flawed female character does not equate to a flawed feminist film. Throughout this film, Sophie is deceptive, violent, and inconsiderate. She is no hero. But falling deeper into her own constructed Hell only provides her with the opportunity to climb out.
Likeable or not, she and the two other female characters are multi-dimensional and intriguing, with flaws and muddied backstories. These women include Kiera, played by Yananton herself, and Jacqueline Slateman, played by the talented Mira Furlan. Although Sophie and Kiera are both excellent characters portrayed by talented actors, Furlan’s Jacqueline is a stand-out. It is clear that Yananton took care in building an influential past and mysterious motives for Jacqueline, who I found to be the most intriguing character in the film. This is a woman whose intelligent eyes follow the interactions between her husband and the pretty young student with both suspicion and sadness, who suffers the most but is wiser than all the rest. “You are not a victim,” she tells Sophie. “You make them.” It is a line that wraps up the complexities of the film’s progression in one mere breath. Imperfect in her own right, Jacqueline serves to shine a light on the rough edges of the other less-than-perfect characters by providing judgement from her moral high ground.
Kiera, on the other hand, flips the role of the traditional “ladies man” on its head. Her male conquests are mere playthings, as unidimensional and forgettable as the female one-night-stands in one of those previously mentioned college party movies. Her morality, or lack thereof, is initially what leads Sophie astray. She is the devil on her friend’s shoulder, claiming to be embracing the freedoms derived from “women’s lib.” She adds a fun complexity to the film, especially as her relationship with Sophie turns into something more than friendship. To have two bisexual women, each distinct in their motives, personality and sexual drives, within the film offers viewers something dynamic and not often seen.
Overall, the film is “indie” to its core. From the beautiful introduction credits to the last song performed by Yananton herself, the film is homemade, personal, and honest. And for that, it is only stronger. The wonderfully imperfect characters, intertwining themes of love, hurt, and consequence, and overall engaging storytelling make this feminist film definitely worth the watch.
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Read Danielle Winston’s interview with writer and director Leah Yananton.