Criterion Review: WANDA

Barbara Loden’s independent film takes its place in the Criterion canon

Wanda, Barbara Loden’s sole feature-length film, experienced a resurgence of popularity in recent years. The low-budget drama screened in select repertory cinemas around the country as well as on Criterion’s streaming channel, prompting essays by women critics who were born after its initial 1970 release. I was inspired to check a DVD version of the independent film out from Austin Public Library after seeing the Loden project on a list of notable feminist films. As part of this celebration and reassessment of the work, Criterion recently released Wanda on Blu-ray.

Time and a further understanding of the background behind Loden’s creation allowed me to appreciate the film more upon this second viewing. Wanda uniquely pins its narrative focus on a poor, uneducated woman with limited options and little talent. Loden, who wrote and directed, plays the main character. From the first shot of a house on the edge of a coal pit, the filmmaker shows the kind of rural poverty Wanda lives in. She traverses the pit, a petite figure in white, to bum cash off someone for bus fare to her children’s custody hearing; once at the courthouse, she puts up no fight, assuming her husband can care for them better than she could.

The mother of two kids is naive, soft-voiced, and barely literate. Wanda has no self-assurance and is easily taken in. She moves aimlessly through life, falling in with a thief, Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), who exerts a fierce control over her and involves her in a bank robbery scheme. In the early days of their traveling together, she confesses, “I don’t have anything. Never did have anything. Never will have anything.”

In the documentary accompanying the Criterion Blu-ray release, Loden notes that “Wanda was a woman who was ill-equipped to deal with life.” I’ve seen Wanda proclaimed a feminist masterpiece, but that seems too grandiose a description. Loden’s work shouldn’t be ignored, especially in discussions of independent film of its era. I’m uncertain it holds up quite as well on its own if you don’t know that the woman who made it was inspired by the story of a female bank robbery accomplice who thanked the judge for sentencing her to jail, or that the director’s rural North Carolina upbringing played into her choice of setting.

It is truly a feat that such a film was made by a small crew, on a tiny budget. Her director of photography notes in I Am Wanda, “Every day we would start from scratch and build something together.” The resulting feature is a notable accomplishment, and thanks to the Criterion release, Loden’s singular voice is given amplification.

The Criterion Blu-ray release of Wanda includes:

  • I Am Wanda, a documentary filmed in the last months of Loden’s life. Includes scenes of her instructing acting classes, taking ballet lessons, and participating in family literature discussions. She is open and reflective with the filmmakers about her childhood and how she broke into acting. Towards the end she and Nicholas T. Proferes, who shot and edited the film, talk about how Wanda came to be.
  • Audio recording of a talk Loden gave at the American Film Institute in 1971, answering questions from students about the experience of making her first film on a small budget.
  • Loden’s March 4, 1971 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.
  • A 1975 educational short, The Frontier Experience, also directed by Loden (and written by Joan Micklin Silver, who would go on to direct Hester Street).
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