Women in Film is a weekly column that examines films directed by women. All films selected for this column are currently streaming online. To view other entries into this column, be sure to click on the tag “Women in Film.”
Director Tamra Davis has a fascinating filmography. From Hanson’s “MmmBop” video to episodes of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” she has a knack for tapping into trends and lending her unique voice to pop culture. Davis’ best known project is probably “Billy Madison,” the silly comedy that turned Adam Sandler into a movie star. But in 1992, she directed her first feature film, dedicated to an exploration of female trauma and empowerment.
The early 90s were a tumultuous time for Drew Barrymore. Her once promising film career had stagnated and the roles she landed were starting to all look the same. With roles like Amy Fisher in “The Amy Fisher Story,” and Ivy in “Poison Ivy,” her onscreen vixen persona led many to conclude that she was the same girl off screen. Along came “Guncrazy,” which was slightly in the same vein, though wildly different from her previous characters.
In “Guncrazy,” Barrymore stars as 16-year-old Anita Minteer, a girl who was abandoned by her mother and is abused by every boy and man in her life. When her English teacher assigns the class to seek out pen pals and get to know someone far away, she finds Howard Hickock (James LeGros), an inmate at Chino Men’s Prison in southern California. When Howard is paroled, Anita tries to help him put his life back together. But it isn’t long before her troubled life and his difficult past combine with deadly consequences.
Written by Matthew Bright, “Guncrazy” features cliché dialogue and expects the audience to draw its own conclusions on certain plot points. But what makes it worthwhile is the way the film examines Anita’s general mistreatment and the way she chooses to confront it.
Anita starts out by thinking the only way to earn respect from the boys is to let them sleep with her. She derives no personal pleasure from this, and only receives further mistreatment and disrespect. Her life is also complicated by the fact that her mother took off and left her with a step-father figure, Rooney. He takes advantage of her, although his position of authority in her life makes his abuse more menacing.
When Howard arrives, Anita finds hope and a sort of salvation in him. Because of her tragic upbringing, she clings to any bit of goodness she can find. She so craves kindness and love that she ignores everything about his past and accepts the version of him that she sees. In fact, they do both need that acceptance, and seek it out from each other. Their relationship is as mutual as one could hope for, considering she is only 16 and he’s a freshly paroled, violent felon.
What makes Anita a particularly intriguing character is how much knowledge and understanding she has in regard to her situation. She may be powerless in avoiding her circumstances, but she makes choices along the way. Her actions are rarely spontaneous, but she knows what she’s doing. Anita isn’t a naive, hapless victim. Even as a teenager, Barrymore had wells of personal experience to draw from. Davis helped tap into the combination of strength and vulnerability that has always made her such an interesting actress to watch.
Tamra Davis has a strong talent for spotlighting the need for human connection and the extreme lengths people go to find it. “Guncrazy” is a movie both very much of its time and also relevant today. As violence in the war against female autonomy continues to rage, this is the time to revisit “Guncrazy.” And time to thoughtfully examine how it is that we haven’t made nearly enough progress in the last 27 years.