A good travel movie can take you away. Image from Pixabay.
As a pre-jetsetter kid and teenager, many of my assumptions about what a travel experience would be like were formed by films that portrayed female protagonists finding adventure, romance, and/or themselves on the other side of the world.
Now that I am older, a teeny bit wiser, and have been on my fair share of travel adventures, I am ready to take my quasi-experienced eye to some of my favorite travel films. What do they get right about the travel experience?
Here are five women-led travel movies and how they fit into my understanding of what it is to be a traveler:
1. The Before Sunrise series
Director Richard Linklater is getting a lot of attention right now for his film Boyhood, but it’s his Before Sunrise trilogy that makes the perfect travel film experience.
Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013) were filmed in nine-year intervals and follow the story of an American man played by Ethan Hawke and a French woman played by Julie Delpy. In the first film the two travelers meet on a train and decide to spend the entire night in Vienna, talking. I don’t want to spoil the experience, but the trilogy follows these enigmatic characters over the course of 18 years and features Vienna, Paris, and Greece as living, breathing settings for their story.
What it gets right: The Before Sunrise series captures the spontaneity of travel — a mixture of the mundane, the magical, and the apparently eternal — like no other film I’ve seen. It also specializes in that travel feeling of being in a strange place with a strange person and feeling completely at home.
2. Enchanted April
This 1992 film about four British women who decide to rent a medieval castle in the Italian countryside for a month is based on the 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim. The film isn’t subverting any storytelling tropes, but it’s a beautifully shot and well-acted piece and the ultimate choice when you’re yearning for a travel fairy tale.
What it gets right: Everything in Enchanted April seems a little too easy, but it is spot-on in its depiction of how travel can help you get away from your life — and how your life usually ends up catching up with you no matter how far you go.
3. Brokedown Palace
On the other end of the travel film spectrum comes this story of two American best friends, played by Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale, who travel to Thailand together and get into a heap of trouble. Though more of a travel nightmare than an escapist travel flick, Brokedown Palace offsets its outlandish plot with excellent casting and beautiful photography. Note: I have since visited Thailand with my best friend, and we both escaped unscathed.
What it gets right: Brokedown Palace is not so much a travel film as a hyperbolic exploration of the anxieties of female friendship using the perceived dangers of an exotic “other.” However, I can’t help but admit to having the occasional irrational and xenophobic moments when traveling in a country other than my own. This film plays to those moments of travel fear. Times one million.
4. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
If you’re a certain generation of American, you may have grown up reading this series of books and watching the two movies based on them. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants tells the story of four childhood best friends struggling to stay together as they grow older and start spending their summers (and college years) apart. The films mine material from the first four books, including storylines that take introverted Lena to visit her family (and fall in love) in the Greek isles and Bridget to work on an archaeological dig in Turkey. Come for the beautiful international sights, stay for the celebration of female friendship. (Or vice versa — I’m not picky.)
What it gets right: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films capture the joy of the first travel experience — and the struggles and triumphs of staying connected with one’s loved ones when on opposite sides of the world.
5. Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation tells the story of two Americans, an aging actor played by Bill Murray and a recent college graduate played by Scarlett Johansson, who form a connection upon a chance meeting in a Tokyo hotel. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola (Huzzah for female directors!), the film is an atmospheric and compelling exploration of loneliness. It also features some pretty amazingly beautiful shots of Kyoto and Tokyo.
What it gets right: So many travel films paint other-side-of-the-world trips as non-stop adventures full of meaning and purpose. Lost in Translation is a much more nuanced portrayal of the travel experience that doesn’t gloss over the potential alienation, loneliness, and depression that can accompany the travel experience. And I love it for it.