Steven Soderbergh doesn’t immediately come to mind when you think “woman’s director.” It wasn’t until Erin Brockovich that one of his films was led by a woman. The true story of a small-town woman who takes on a corporation was a familiar one, but not with America’s Sweetheart Julia Roberts – earning her an Academy Award in the process – and revisiting it today one sees its rubber-stamp on today’s female-focused films.

Brockovich (Roberts) is a single mother living paycheck to paycheck as she cares for her three small children. When a lawsuit leaves her further in debt, she demands a job from her former attorney Ed Masry (Albert Finney). Starting out as a lowly receptionist, Erin stumbles on the case of a lifetime when she discovers that PG&E may have poisoned the citizens of a California town.

Erin Brockovich was one of the first DVDs my family ever purchased, so it got a lot of airtime in my house as we transitioned away from VHS. The California settings resonated with us, as the town of Hinkley is near where my parents grew up.

The film succeeds due to screenwriter Susannah Grant’s depiction of a struggling single mother. Erin Brockovich spoke to my own mother’s experience, trying to make money last without letting her children go without. Before Erin takes up the case against PG&E we watch her pick up her children from a bored “nanny” who “smells like chicken feet,” has bills that need to be paid, no job and no aid. She lives by her wits, and the hardest thing for her to do is ask someone for help.

Erin’s most painful moment comes after she loses her lawsuit after a car accident. She takes her children out for dinner (there’s no food in the house) and lies to her kids about being “stuffed” from a celebratory lunch with her attorney. Grant captures the lies parents tell their kids in the hope that maybe their kids will grow up well-adjusted despite living in poverty.

It’s a shame Soderbergh doesn’t focus on this for the whole film; it’s what bonds the audience to Erin, and Roberts’ tough-as-nails personality and dazzling smile make her a compelling lead without belittling her intelligence or focusing on her wardrobe.

At the time of the film’s release, much was made about Roberts’ push-up bras and “trashy” wardrobe, both indictive of a woman with limited funds and her confidence in her own skin. Grant gets in some great asides about how women subtly slut shame their competition, refusing to invite Erin out (in fact, it is Ed who brings up Erin’s wardrobe). But for all her ingenuity and dogged determination, the jokes about her body are a bit ridiculous. The legendary line, “They’re called boobs, Ed,” is a disservice to Erin to the point that the real Brockovich said she would never have said it.

Still, when Erin Brockovich turns into an investigatory procedural, it follows the great tradition of ‘30s female gumshoes like Torchy Blane. What starts out as an insurance claim turns into Erin’s single-handed fight against a utility that knowingly poisoned countless people. Unlike films made today, there’s no man at her side helping her discover these things. Nearly everything is proven by her alone, with Ed acting as the legal advisor who initiates the lawsuit. Erin may not be a lawyer, but she’s a smart woman with the ability to put people at ease, proving that women are resourceful individuals who can make things happen if given the chance.

As the investigation continues, the movie presents the Hinkley victims as people, from cancer victim Marg Helgenberger to a kid who just wants to go outside and be a kid. Roberts gives voice to their inner torment, feeling their pain and hoping to do right, even though it puts her at odds with her own children. The emotion Roberts expresses as Erin learns she missed her daughter’s first spoken word speaks to countless working mothers who miss life events just to keep food on the table.

With a personality equally tenacious and appealing, there wouldn’t be an Erin Brockovich without Roberts, whose career was built on women who refused to hear the word “no.” It’s unfortunate that the actress never found another role so enduring. The film lives and dies with her performance as an ambitious woman who doesn’t care what others think. Finney is also a stand-out as the blustery Ed Masry.

Soderbergh once again shows his ability to play in the Hollywood sandbox and Erin Brockovich remains the perfect Oscar-bait with a star-studded performance. It may well be what David O. Russell strived for and failed to achieve, with last year’s Joy. If you haven’t watched Erin Brockovich in a while, give it another look.

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