The Bechdel Test, as overused it may be when writing about art, is an important litmus when examining relationships between women in film. How often do women truly talk to one another on the screen about something other than men? As the women’s rights movement fueled the 1970s – its proponents seeking an equal rights amendment and access to abortion, as well as commensurate pay- that revolutionary spirit did not bleed into mainstream filmmaking, most failing the Bechdel Test. The decade was dominated with movies about men doing crime (The Godfather), men battling their inner demons (Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver) and men investigating the wrongdoing of other men (Chinatown). Women’s roles may have improved since the ‘50s and ‘60s (see Sigourney Weaver in Alien) but there aren’t many popular films from the decade where two women are the main protagonists who exist outside a relationship bound to men. As for women filmmakers? Try to name a few without resorting to Google.

Claudia Weill’s superbly subtle and sensitive Girlfriends (1978) has been unfairly left out of the conversation of important ‘70s films. While much of the film may feel dated, especially the version of a New York City where artists could still live and subside on the cheap, many of the concerns expressed in Girlfriends are still important today. Just look at Frances Ha and “Girls” (a show of which Weill directed an episode) to see the conundrums that face the characters in Girlfriends still create tension for women today.

While American society once shepherded women into motherhood or a certain subset of jobs, men were encouraged to follow their dreams and to reach for the brass ring of wealth so commonly ascribed to the American Dream. How many films (old and modern) depict marriage and security as the end-game success for women while men get all the glory of becoming rich and famous? As Girlfriends opens, Susan (Melanie Mayron) and Anne (Anita Skinner) live together in a small apartment. Susan is Jewish, a photographer who makes a living shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs, but yearns to be an artist with a capital A. Anne is decidedly WASPy and wants to be a poet. Almost immediately, nearly all of Anne’s dialogue concerns how her boyfriend, Martin, (Bob Balaban) perceives her writing, how she feels about him, how they become engaged to be married. Susan is having none of it. Her friendship with Anne is more important than any man. It doesn’t take long for Anne to move in with Martin, leaving Susan adrift and feeling abandoned.

Though Girlfriends may seem like an inappropriate title for a film that mainly follows Susan, it’s her relationship with Anne that fuels much of the subsequent action. Cut free and emotionally wounded, Susan flounders through a series of bad choices. As Anne continues to allow herself to be defined by her husband (though Weill and writer Vicki Polon wisely portray Martin as a sensitive and kind character), Susan pushes back with a fervor to remain independent. At one point, Susan admits that all she wants is for Martin to take care of her. Susan snaps, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Anne, you don’t need anyone to take care of you!” Yet, neither character is truly happy. Susan is lonely and Anne is afraid of being alone.

According to critic Molly Haskell, “At Girlfriends’ anguished heart is the terrible and unexpected trauma inflicted when one person deserts a friendship – here, it’s for marriage, but it could be for a better job or another partner or something else.” We’ve all had those intense friendships where the bottom falls out and one party ghosts the other. It is a confusing and terrible thing to lose a close a confidante or someone you once thought would be there in your life always. As Susan flails in both her romantic and platonic relationships, she is ultimately trying to get Anne, or someone like Anne, back. Yet, major life changes such as marriage and children can cause rifts in old friendships. In Girlfriends, Anne buys in and thinks she wants what has been prescribed for her. Susan wants something different.

Much of Girlfriends is an elliptical story of Susan’s misadventures. She picks up a hitchhiker (Amy Wright) and then invites her to live with her, eventually souring on the girl because she isn’t Anne. She begins to date a moody artist (Christopher Guest) who she meets at party but their relationship runs hot and cold. She even almost embarks on an affair with an older rabbi (played with warm energy by Eli Wallach).

Girlfriends works its way to Susan’s first photography show, an event that Martin attends but Anne does not. Even though nearly everyone important in her life shows up to support Susan, Anne’s absence stings and cuts to the loss that informs Weill’s film. Neither character is truly happy with their choices, yet something stops them from reaching out and reconnecting in the way things used to be. Susan yearns to have a conversation with Anne that passes the Bechdel Test. They almost get there in the end. But even when they try, the shadow of men looms large, and still does, over a movie that fights to break away but is wise enough to know better.

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