Film Review: A Girl & A Gun

Documentary about the mixture of fear and empowerment that goes along with female gun ownership suffers the occasional editorial misfire, but ultimately shines light on a worthy subject.

Cathryne Czubek's ultimately thought-provoking documentary about female firearm ownership buries the lead, squandering time on women who burble about loving guns because "they're pretty" and phallic before getting to the ones living with the aftermath of actually using deadly force, including a young widow and mother who killed the intruder who kicked in her door as she waited for the police.

That's not to say that director and co-writer (with editor Amanda Hughes) doesn't aim to cover the issue as thoroughly as possible, ranging from America's history of gun-toting women (notably Annie Oakley (1860-1926), a sharpshooter, supporter of gun instruction for women and bona fide Wild West-show celebrity), to perfectly manicured Tai Chi Robin Natanell, whose cheerful, commonsense advocacy eventually churns up the revelation that she bought her first gun because she was being terrorized by an ex-boyfriend (a bodybuilder twice her size enraged at being dumped) and discovered that in her home state of Massachusetts, she couldn't legally own a Taser or a stun gun, but she could and did get a rifle.

But Czubek's editorial judgment often fails her. Yes, it's important to represent the commercial concerns that help drive women to buy guns, which was in part a product of ‘70s and '80s social trends, including the increasing willingness of women, including women with children, to abandon unsatisfactory marriages or not marry at all. Advertisers quickly spotted and exploited a niche market—women looking to protect themselves and their children (in many cases from angry men looking to straighten out the uppity bitches who dared walk away from them, a point that goes unexplored). It's hard to say which is more infuriating: Tradeshow footage of vendors hawking skinny, pink-handled guns and pastel shooting accessories for the "lady market," or shots of an oily pitchman conducting what looks like a weaponized Tupperware party in a middle-class living room, terrifying the assembled women with sexual-assault statistics and then promising that "nobody ever raped Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Wesson." Good stuff.

Yet she also cedes far too much screen time to San Francisco-based geek-girl Violet Blue, a blogger and TED columnist given to hipster pontification about women as societally designated natural-born victims who own their "freedom, power [and] womanhood" by keeping a loaded handgun under the pillow. The odd thing is, while Czubek doesn't seem be feeding Blue enough rope to hang herself, she holds back footage of Blue mentioning that she was stalked and viciously threatened while working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle—information that would have grounded Blue's pretentious noodling without undermining her self-possession had it been introduced earlier.

When it comes to the big-city gal contingent, no-nonsense New Yorker Margit Sawdey, who took up shooting as a hobby and is studying for her instructor's certification, comes off far better when she tells one of her brothers exactly why she won't keep her guns at home. She's willing to face an intruder unarmed rather than start blasting away in the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her teenage sons—small space + thin walls = recipe for disaster—and she knows the lockbox hasn't been made that a determined young adult can't get into. So does New Jersey mother Stephanie Alexander, a former junkie who turned her life around only to nearly lose her teenager, Aieshia, to a drive-by shooting. Having reinvented herself as an outspoken, community-based victims-rights activist, you can see her heart breaking when she shares the screen with the wheelchair-bound daughter defending her decision to buy a gun of her own.

In the end, even the best documentaries face an uphill battle, but A Girl & A Gun (a show-off title that alludes to Jean-Luc Godard's smarty-pants recipe for movies) is worth sticking with: its missteps are annoying, but anyone who walks out not aching for a discussion wasn't paying attention.