Unsung Auteurs: Sara Colangelo

December 9, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Sara Colangelo, who has charted dark moral waters with The Kindergarten Teacher and Worth.

“We’re seeing a lot of filmmaking by women at the indie level and with documentaries, but there’s a real vast underrepresentation at the studio level,” writer/director Sara Colangelo told rogerebert.com in 2018. “That’s a problem we have to change. I think we’ve all realised, both with the sexual harassment and power disparity, is that men really control the industry. We have to change not only that, but we have to change the way we do business. There’s an ancient ritual, boy’s club aspect that we have to recognise and have to dismantle. It feels violent, hard and painful at moments, but it’s gotta happen, and men and women have to do it together. So, I hope to see that, and I hope to see more films at the studio level being directed by women.”

Sara Colangelo – like many of her female filmmaking colleagues – should be making studio films with at least mid-sized budgets and the might of marketing prowess behind them. She has a short but rock-solid track record that should have already assured her of working in a more high profile domain. While many male directors come bursting out of Sundance or Toronto with a bold debut, they are often instantly catapulted up the ladder, while female filmmakers tend to go from their indie breakout picture to more indie films, and then often to television. It’s certainly not a question of talent, but rather an indication of an industry that is undeniably slanted. The system does seem to be changing, but not nearly fast enough for gifted directors like Sara Colangelo.

Sara Colangelo on the set of Little Accidents with Elizabeth Banks

Colangelo graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1997 and Brown University with a Bachelor of Arts in History in 2001. She received her MFA at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School Of the Arts, and this is where the seeds of her film career were really sown. Her NYU thesis project, a short film called Little Accidents, premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and first got Colangelo noticed. The tough tale of a troubled young factory worker who recruits a mentally disabled co-worker to steal a pregnancy test for her, the film foreshadowed the murky moral waters in which Colangelo would later find herself so comfortable with her feature work. The short won the Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Short from The Seattle International Film Festival.

Four years later, Colangelo made her feature debut with a film also called Little Accidents, which shared thematic similarities with her short, but was not a simple expansion of it. A dark, morally complex drama, the 2014 film is set in a small coal town still living under the burden of a tragic mining accident that almost ruined it completely. When a teenage boy goes missing, the town is fractured even further, and the film follows the effects of the disappearance on a miner (Boyd Holbrook) still wracked with guilt over the accident; the lonely wife (Elizabeth Banks) of a mine executive; and a troubled local boy (Jacob Lofland).  A strong but little seen debut, Little Accidents showcased Colangelo as both a finely nuanced writer and a director of rare sensitivity and intelligence. “I was interested in industrial and post-industrial America; one-company towns with a definite division of class,” Colangelo told The Mary Sue upon the film’s release. “Prior to writing the feature, I was reading a lot about the coal industry, and was fascinated by it and how much I never knew. It’s a very controversial industry and is an industry in transition, which was interesting to me. And it had an aesthetic appeal to me as a writer to have characters going underground, and the metaphor of burying secrets, which is thematically what the film is about.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher.

Sara Colangelo gained more traction with 2018’s The Kindergarten Teacher, an absolutely superb remake of Nadav Lapid’s Israeli film, which she beautifully adapted for the American market. Starring an utterly transcendent Maggie Gyllenhaal in a wonderfully full-bodied performance, the difficult and uncompromising drama tracks the eponymous educator, who discovers that one of her young charges has a surprising gift for poetry. The teacher becomes borderline obsessed with the young boy, and the lines between an adult’s encouragement of a child and pure exploitation become increasingly blurred. The Kindergarten Teacher is an absolute gem, and one of the most criminally underrated films of the last five years. “I never would have thought that my second film would be a remake but I felt that I could really recreate something here,” Sara Colangelo told rogerebert.com in 2018. “You don’t see a lot of scripts that showcase interesting female characters. Usually, I have to write my own female characters but in this case, I thought it was a really challenging character. It was an opportunity to create a female anti-hero, and somebody that isn’t perfectly likable. I think it’s high time that we see stories like that. I like the idea of having a character that isn’t this kind of lovely, ethically perfect person.”

The entangled nature of moral and ethical responsibility was forefronted even further by Sara Colangelo with her next film. Based on facts, 2021’s Worth (penned by Max Borenstein) is the story of lawyer Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton), who was appointed the Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Forced to literally put a value on human life, Feinberg’s internal struggle is a truly gargantuan one, and Colangelo (with the help of a fine cast that also includes Stanley Tucci, Amy Ryan and Tate Donovan) navigates it with skilful brilliance. Worth is subtle and supremely intelligent filmmaking, and deals with issues and subject matter that would send most directors running. “I was really interested in the moral conundrum of it all,” Colangelo told NPR. “You know, how math and calculation of dollars and cents and the kind of rational, cold approach to actuarial models, how that world would collide with the raw emotion of 9/11 and the heartbreak of thousands of families. There was something really interesting in that scenario and in the tension inherent in that scenario.”

Sara Colangelo on the set of Worth with Michael Keaton.

Fearless in the face of difficult, deeply complicated themes and unconventional characters that go right against the grain, Sara Colangelo is one of the bravest and most consistently original writer/directors currently working…and many more people should know about her.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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