The setting of 1960s San Francisco is what explicitly connects Women Is Losers to the matriarchal lineage of first-time writer/director Lissette Feliciano. Just in case this fact would not be made abundantly clear mere minutes into the runtime, the very first frame contains the blatant statement: “Inspired by real women.” Though initially positioning itself as an “inspirational” story that confronts this country’s festering inequality, the film’s eventual assertion that systemic disparity can be overcome by sheer gumption is clichéd and disappointing. It is also charged with didactic platitudes in its approach to unpacking gender and racial discrimination, suffused with the very stereotypes it attempts to dispel.
The viewer first meets Celina (Lorenza Izzo) when she’s in the midst of a fight with her husband Mateo (Bryan Craig), who himself is being concurrently thrown out by his white trash mistress (“America! English!” she barks at Celina). The year is 1972, and Celina wastes no time immediately breaking the fourth wall and giving a quick history lesson as to why the nameless woman’s words are actually offensive: “Native Americans had over 300 different dialects,” she preaches with her four-year-old son perched on her hip. The other three walls soon quickly dissolve as well, the set deconstructed in front of the audience’s eyes as Celina shimmies into a Catholic schoolgirl outfit. With this wardrobe change, Celina is transported five years into the past, retracing the steps of how she got to the film’s opening scene. While principally concerned with the experiences that shape the protagonist as a woman, worker and mother, Women Is Losers is similarly interested in the other women that influence Celina’s life and decisions from the sidelines.
Unfortunately, the women explored in the film—including Celina—are flat to the point of near parody. Her mother is abused and terrorized by her father; her best friend is an unfortunate victim of misogynistic legislation; Celina herself is a single mother who works three jobs for a shot at the “American dream.” These characters also permeate a heteronormative worldview that hinges on the presence of men, if only to saddle women with problems they must valiantly overcome on their own. There is the additional noxious insistence of adhering to a “bootstrap” mentality, a touch that Feliciano directly addressed ahead of the film’s SXSW premiere: “[My mom] still believes in America…the land of opportunity. She’d want people to believe that, too.” Women Is Losers therefore claims that women oscillate between fulfilling the role of martyr or girlboss, depending on their determination to conquer adversity through working themselves to death. In contrast, men are depicted as cartoonishly lazy, evil and inept, mistreating the women in their lives with an almost inhuman contentedness. While primarily invested in gender divides, the film manages to evoke a stark perception of racial conflict and disharmony—often resulting in tokenization as opposed to representation. The sole Black man in the film is mild-mannered and polite to the point of banality, while multiple white women have their waking hours dominated by a rabid quest to undermine Celina in all of her endeavors. The only exception to their uniform cruelty is when one of the film’s seemingly brusque white women is revealed to be in an interracial relationship, which in turn renders her an instant ally. Once again, the women in the film are only as valuable or interesting as their relative proximity to the men in their lives.
Yet it’s the constant fourth wall breaking that truly cements Women Is Losers in the realm of distasteful tweeness. These cloyingly self-aware quips almost always occur between scenes of wife beating and bank loan discrimination, effectively yanking the viewer out of the few scenes that come close to establishing emotional stakes. Solely performed by women, these asides instill these characters with an improbable sense of hindsight; these are not the thoughts of ‘60s and ‘70s-era American women, but rather the unmistakably millennial filmmaker. Imbuing these women with an inherent understanding of 21st century identity politics is an easy and disingenuous way of presenting them as courageous feminists, a portrayal that is eons away from tangible insight and understanding. It is idolization without introspection.
Complicating this characterization even further is the gradual thickening of Celina’s accent over time. She speaks in fluent teen-speak English during her tenure at Catholic school, but finds her accent and use of Spanish increasing tenfold after donning the label of “unwed single mother.” This could have been alluded to as a conscious choice of the protagonist, perhaps fueled by a desire to use her parent’s native tongue when raising her own child. It could have also been utilized as a means of presenting how white people often mindlessly project what they expect a Latina to act and sound like. Instead, it is predominantly implemented during her conversations with non-Latinos, but not exclusively white people: Her Chinese boss Gilbert, a diverse pool of prospective landlords and the occasional jealous mistresses. Puzzling in its execution, it is another facet of the film that feels steeped in lazy misconception.
For all of its shortcomings, Women Is Losers nonetheless manages to craft an alluring setting and time. The gorgeous architecture of San Francisco is never punishing to bask in, while the period-accurate wardrobes are nothing short of totally charming. Unexpectedly, the performance from Simu Liu as Gilbert is the most rewarding in its unique nuance, charting his relationship to American exceptionalism and the hurdles he had to maneuver in order to make the “dream” come true. His ancestral backstory is even playfully articulated via black-and-white time-warp, his great-great grandfather appearing in an aesthetically agreeable micro-segment that briefly chronicles the experience of Chinese immigrants in California. Why this effort is expended on a minor (and ultimately kind of assholeish) character is a mystery; however, it demonstrates that Feliciano is capable of communicating complexity and simply chose not to give the film’s central character the same multifaceted selfhood.
In trying to rectify the past dismissal of women’s stories, Women Is Losers presents a tired tableau of what viewers have ostensibly been missing out on due to obscured history. Even if single mothers, abortion and Latina interiority had never been artfully addressed by women filmmakers like Jennifer Kent, Eliza Hittman and Aurora Guerrero (respectively), Feliciano’s effort is particularly marred by hackneyed tropes. Whether it be that Latino fathers operate out of the same withered copy of a machismo manual or the simple assertion that kids simply “need a father,” Women Is Losers certainly won’t win over those yearning for something new.
Director: Lissette Feliciano
Writers: Lissette Feliciano
Stars: Lorenza Izzo, Bryan Craig, Chrissie Fit, Simu Liu, Steven Bauer, Liza Weil, Cranston Johnson, Alejandra Miranda, Shalim Ortiz, Lincoln Bonilla
Release Date: October 18, 2021 (HBO Max)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan