Newfest 2021: Ruth Caudeli’s “Leading Ladies” Takes Dyke Drama Seriously

Newfest 2021 is taking place in New York City and virtually online. Find tickets for in-person and online screenings here.

Ruth Caudeli’s latest burst of queer cinema takes place at a dinner party. Five friends have reunited upon one of their long-awaited returns. They drink, they eat pasta, they sing, and they reveal secrets in passive aggressive barbs and overdue outbursts.

With its handheld cinematography, improvised dialogue, limited setting, and unconventional structure, Leading Ladies feels like a lo-fi experiment as much as it does a feature film. But abandoning the anchors present in most features isn’t a shortcut — it’s a challenge. It’s hard to make life’s quiet dramas riveting in the way Caudeli and her cast accomplish.

Providing too much plot would be a disservice to a film that relishes in its small reveals. It has the tension of a whodunnit, but instead of murder there exist a dozen smaller betrayals. Who is dating whom, who is fucking whom, who likes whom, who hates whom, who is lying, who is lying more — this is what’s revealed with every line, every glance, every shift in perspective.

All five actresses have worked with Caudeli before including her most frequent collaborator Silvia Varón who acts as the film’s ultimate agent of chaos. There’s a clear trust between filmmaker and performers that comes with familiarity — and talent — and it’s a pleasure to watch them play together. The five women live up to the title, each providing a leading performance that elevates their part of the story.

Since her debut feature in 2018, Caudeli has racked up seven additional directing credits including two features and excluding three more films on the way. There are few filmmakers working today as committed to — and successful at — dramatic experimentation as Caudeli. Some artists fixate on a specific work, polishing it to their idea of perfection. And then there are artists like Caudeli who seem incapable of containing even a fragment of their creativity, who create and create and create with endless bursts of raw brilliance.

Some viewers might find Leading Ladies to be more of an interesting curiosity than a satisfying narrative experience, but, for me, the satisfaction is in the way it eludes. This is not as clean as her debut Eva + Candela or as masterful as her follow up Second Star On the Right, but it’s thrilling to watch this kind of boundary-less queer filmmaking.

The various plots of Leading Ladies — with their backstabbing, cheating, and litigious consequences — would fit right in on The L Word. And yet they couldn’t feel more different. Caudeli trusts her audience to follow along and to care without forcing or over-explaining any narrative threads. She is a queer woman making work for other queers and that’s felt in every beat.

From Chantal Akerman to Cheryl Dunye, queer women have been some of our sharpest creators at the intersection of experimental and narrative filmmaking. Ruth Caudeli continues that tradition. She’s one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers and Leading Ladies encapsulates why. Her cinema crackles with energy. It’s queer cinema at its very best.

Leading Ladies can be seen in theatres on October 16th and is available online until October 26th.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 553 articles for us.


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