Women’s friendships can be intimate, competitive, sisterly, or roller-coaster. But there’s one thing about them that’s indisputable: they’re a necessity. Women who support one another and gird each other’s strength and confidence are vital. In a patriarchal world eager to inflict its standards on young girls, teenage friendships can be even more urgent. Fittingly, the high school movie is a go-to genre to see girlhood besties. But other films also underline the importance of adult women’s relationships. Plenty feature the negative stereotypes of gossip and cattiness, but even when female friendships are at their most flawed, women are more likely to understand and empathize with each other than men. With that in mind, here are twenty of the best films featuring all the ups and downs of female friendship.
An acidly OTT black comedy about a high school killing spree, Heathers is not the most realistic of teen movies. But it makes up for it with a wickedly satirical spirit and knowing eye for the cliquey hierarchies among girlfriends. So many friendship groups are based on the superficial – social status, money, looks—and are quickly torn asunder by power struggles. If school is a society in microcosm, then Heathers’ distinctly subversive unravelling of preppy society is anti-Reagan down the core.
A film celebrating togetherness, nostalgia and lifelong friendship, Now and Then stars Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, Rosie O’Donnell and Rita Wilson in its ensemble cast. A group of women meet to share their recollections of their lives back in 1970, and the film follows us on their flashback to childhood, where the stakes seemed higher and the girls shared adventures together. Essentially, Now and Then is a re-imagining of the archetypal Stand by Me-style boys story—it may not be the freshest, but it’s worthwhile purely through the attempt.
Carol Morley’s recent feature, set in a pastoral English girls’ school circa 1969, is something of a revision on the “female hysteria” sub-genre. As a series of mysterious fainting spells overcome the pubescent girls, shades of Carrie and Picnic at Hanging Rock are evident. But Morley mines the feeling of women’s shared powerlessness in a way most male-directed films on the subject won’t broach. Starring Maisie Williams and Florence Pugh as best friends who seem to be the locus of the strange events, The Falling shows how social influence can create widespread feeling—and how women are intuitively connected enough to manifest even the strangest of shared symptoms.
This adaptation of the Daniel Clowes graphic novel is an identifiable one for teenage girls—and perfectly pitched with a memorable performance from Thora Birch as Enid. She and her best friend Rebecca (a sapling Scarlett Johannsen) are droll, sarcastic, and wear their alienation on their sleeves. They’re on the cusp of graduating high school in their detested small town, and every boredom-fueled move they make is true to adolescence. They’re self-centered, overly dramatic, and posturing—but the portrayal is as honest as they come.
The cast of Steel Magnolias is something to behold: Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine and Dolly Parton. Focusing on the friendships and lives of several women living in a tiny Southern town, the film revolves around ordinary events—marriage, childbirth, grief—in a way that is honest and often heartbreaking. The women form a protective circle around each other—providing jokes, hankies and listening ears at vital moments. It’s a little on the mawkish side, but you’d be hard put not to be at least a little bit moved by its denouement.
Frances Ha is a film that understands the pain of lady friend break-ups. Greta Gerwig is a twentysomething New Yorker smarting over the perceived loss of her ex-roommate and best friend Sophie. Sophie has moved out, moved on and is moon-eyed over her new boyfriend, and Frances feels lonely in that big-city way that can only happen after the loss of a friend. Sophie was her lifeline, her confidante and her late-night snacking partner—and a romance with a man just can’t take her place. This black-and-white charmer is a thoughtful, sweet-natured take on millennial ennui and ambition.
This ’90s girl power revision of the buddy comedy essentially sets up its premise in the title. Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino are two ditzy, aimless girls headed back to their high school, and apprehensive about the bullying popular girl who once made their lives miserable. They make a joint decision to arrive with the cover story that they’ve invented post-it notes, and impress everyone there with their success. It doesn’t quite go as planned, but the breezily funny caper is a homage to girlfriends’ loyalty—not to mention a wonderfully over-the-top ’90s wardrobe.
Sisterhood comes hand in hand with progress in Hidden Figures, an Oscar-nominated and box-office busting hit from last year. The film charts the careers of three real black women who were engineers and physicists for NASA—helping to do the brainwork behind the space race. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer, the film is a remarkably uplifting watch, carried by the chemistry and charm of the leading actresses. Director Theodore Melfi understands the wordless communication between the women—sighs, sideways glances—in the era of a segregated work force. This a rare portrait of historical female friendship featuring women of color, and even rarer—a happy one.
An often forgotten ’60s film recording the changing mores and sexual politics of the era, The Group was based on a popular and scandalous Mary McCarthy novel of the same name. Surprisingly frank on the subject of sexuality, the narrative follows a handful of well-heeled college graduates at a women’s school. Fresh-faced ingenues all, the actresses depicted birth, marriage, death, lesbianism, alcoholism and everything in between. It also features a small but breakout role for actress Candice Bergen—who would go on to appear a handful of times in that stalwart depiction of ladies’ friendship: Sex and the City.
Magic is a great metaphor for puberty. It’s potent, powerful, more than a little bit mysterious—and often scary. For the group of teenage girls who are endowed with coven-like witchy powers, magic allows them to make quotidian teen life far better. They dress the part, swathed in black and freaking out the other kids in their school. Identity-making is a key part of adolescence, but even more so, a time when burgeoning womanhood means learning how to present yourself to the world. Dressing in all black and rolling your eyes skyward is one way to wear your armor. Typically, young girls are seen as vulnerable—as when the bus driver tells the teen witches to “watch out” for “weirdos.” That’s why Fairuza Balk’s memorable, defiant answer—“We are the weirdos!” is wonderfully feminist.
The shrunken, abused Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) might have never escaped her cruel tyrant of a husband (Danny Glover) were it not for the company of the strong women around her. Torn away from her only loving connection—her sister—she finds comradeship and quiet solidarity in the most unlikely of places. The first comes in the form of Shug Avery, her husband’s wild mistress, whom he carelessly bunks up in his home. Enmity transforms into quiet friendship as Celie’s plight becomes clear. One of the most heartbreaking turns in the film comes from Oprah Winfrey, playing Celie’s spirited and hot-tempered sister-in-law. Her defiance means she’s practically asking to be broken, but as with all the women of the film, her suffering is eventually vindicated.
An odd-couple friendship is not as common a movie trope as an odd-couple romance, but the former is exactly what you get with Beaches. It features Bette Midler as a bohemian Jewish girl and Barbara Hershey as a California WASP, with the pair thrown together in a small apartment as roommates. Syrupy, melodramatic and full of obvious music cues, it’s nonetheless a notable paean to female friendship. It follows the notion that opposites will always attract, regardless of the arguments and obstacles that come between.
A young, lush-featured Kate Winslet stars in this mid-century murder story from director Peter Jackson. She and her shyer, less well-off friend (Melanie Lynskey) make a plan to kill an adult in their lives—seemingly for no reason at all. The candy-colored fantasy world created by the two girls hides an undercurrent of jealousy and rage. That maelstrom of teenage emotion, in this case, coalesces into something altogether deadlier.
A forgotten and then revived treasure from a rich period of ’70s filmmaking, Girlfriends seems like a clear antecedent to everything from Sex and the City to Frances Ha. Director Claudia Weill focuses on the relationship between two single women living in Manhattan with both humor and passion. One of the early films to chronicle female friendship in all its closeness and complexity—and the threat boyfriends and husbands can pose to it—Weill’s film deserves the recent attention it’s received.
Geena Davis has always been great at choosing empowering roles, and equipped with co-stars like Madonna and Lori Petty, she starred in a stone-cold sports classic. Telling the real story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, director Penny Marshall highlights the derision and leering the female athletes were subject to. But teamwork is key, and the girls would go on to make history in their efforts. The women on the team fight for one another, have each other’s backs, and offer shoulders to cry on when the men in their lives disappoint them. A League of their Own is a positive, heartfelt film about pioneering women who support one another—in the field and off it.
“There’s a name for you ladies, but it’s not used in polite society—outside of a kennel.” Joan Crawford quips in this classic ensemble henhouse film. Directed by old Hollywood great George Cukor, the film also stars Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell, and it weaves its way through their various relationships and romantic hijinks. Gossip about a married man’s affair with a common manicurist spreads until the damage is done. There’s plenty of cattiness in Cukor’s vision, but the friendships of the film are also abiding; not a single man is to be seen onscreen in The Women.
Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss gives a towering performance in this independent film from director Alex Ross Perry. She takes on the role of a young woman suffering from both a serious break-up and the death of her father in a short space of time. She’s invited to “get away” at her best friend’s house, a secluded modernist lake-house, where her emotional fragility is made clear. Her childhood pal, played by a chilly Katherine Waterson, welcomes her with more recrimination and resentment than genuine warmth. Feminine psychodrama at its finest, Queen of Earth gets to the heart of the cruelty and envy that can sometimes be nestled in the closest of friendships.
Aside from the greatness of its one-liners, Mean Girls has endured because it’s a cinematically exaggerated version of the truth. Teen life really does feel like being on safari, with the same mad hormones, territorial urges and competitive edge. And girls really can have a hive mentality, clinging to whatever imperceptible alliances will allow them to curry favor with the most popular among them. In the shape of Regina George, Mean Girls shows how the prettiest girls are often raised to the position of Alpha—and boy, can it go to their heads.
Sweet, doll-like Geena Davis and the tough scarlet-lipped matron Susan Sarandon make perfect odd couple besties in this classic feminist road movie. Handling domestic constraints, male condescension, sexual assault and a litany of other women’s issues—without ever seeming heavy-handed or anything less than great fun‚Thelma & Louise is the perfect girl power introduction for a younger sister. Nearly all the men in the film are intentionally caricatured as foolish or secondary—a clever rejoinder to typical onscreen treatment of women. Besides, you can’t beat Thelma & Louise’s explosive revenge on a catcalling truck driver.
The closeness of girl friendships are oft-remarked on, and they are beautifully articulated in this impressionistic French film. Kajida Toure stars as a teen coming of age in the Parisian banlieue, where feminine but hyper-tough girls rule the roost—and know there’s strength in numbers. They shoplift their bodycon dresses and have street scraps with other girl gangs, but are still slut-shamed and dominated by the local boys. Celine Sciamma lenses her unknown actors with gorgeously diffused blue filters, and captures the way they dance, revel in their physical intimacy, and fiercely defend one another. It’s a truthful and compelling portrait of female solidarity.
Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture for VICE, Esquire, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, and others. She’s a displaced New Yorker in love with ’70s Hollywood and boxing flicks.