Signature Move (2017)

I remember Jennifer Reeder’s surrealist high school melodrama Knives & Skin harshly dividing the audience at Overlook Film Fest in 2019, with the more macho Horror Bros in the crowd grumbling that it was the worst film they’d seen all fest and with other scattered weirdos gushing that it was the best.  Personally, I dug it, especially for the way it warped the teen-friendly Lynchian melodrama of early Riverdale by submerging it in a hallucinatory Robotrip aesthetic.  I wasn’t especially surprised that Knives & Skin confused the more rigidly horror-minded section of the crowd, though, since it’s a Laura Palmer-style murder mystery that doesn’t care as much about the murder as it cares about teen-girl bedroom decor and eerie vocal choir renditions of 80s pop tunes.  Hell, even my own reaction was confused.   I left the theater thinking I had watched a messy but ambitious debut feature from a boldly stylistic genre nerd.  I was wrong.  Reeder had not only made a name for herself as a prolific short filmmaker on the festival circuit, but she also had already completed her first feature in 2017’s Signature Move.  And now having caught up with that debut, I’m as confused as ever.  After the slow-motion, high-style freakout of Knives & Skin, I was expecting a lot more visual panache out of the straightforward, Sundancey romcom that preceded it.  I still don’t have a clear answer to the question “Who is Jennifer Reeder?” Maybe I never will.

Signature Move stars Fawzia Mirza as a closeted, thirtysomething Chicagoan who hides her lesbian social life from her first-generation mother, an agoraphobic shut-in who spends all her time watching Pakistani soap operas and needling her daughter about marriage.  As an act of private rebellion and stress relief, Mirza secretly trains as a professional wrestler between dull dayshifts working the desk at a law office.  She also sneaks around the city’s lesbian bar scene, where she meets a much more out-and-proud love interest played by Sari Sanchez.  Her new girlfriend lives a freer, more honest lesbian life, having grown up with an actual professional wrestler as her mother – an open-minded luchadora named Luna Peligrosa.  As one woman struggles to reveal her true self to her conservative parent and the other refuses to regress into the closet, conflict ensues.  From there, there isn’t much to Signature Move that you can’t find in any 90s festival-circuit romcom or, more recently, any streaming-era sitcom.  Even the lesbian-scene setting isn’t especially distinctive amongst similar, superior titles like Saving Face, Appropriate Behavior, The Watermelon Woman, or whatever was the first queer romcom you happened to catch on IFC before Netflix “disrupted” (i.e., gutted) the original purpose of cable.  I suppose there’s some value in documenting the food, fabrics, art, jewelry, and bootleg DVDs of Chicago’s Muslim & Latinx neighborhoods as our two mismatched-but-perfectly-matched lovers negotiate their new relationship, but in some ways those moments of cultural window dressing almost make the film more anonymous among similar low-budget comedies that pad out the programs at Sundance & Outfest every single year.

If there’s any detectable trace of Jennifer Reeder auteurism in Signature Move, it’s in the inevitable climax where Mirza’s shut-in mother bravely ventures out of their shared apartment to witness her daughter’s pro wrestling debut at what appears to be a lucha-drag hybrid event akin to our local Choke Hole drag-wrasslin’ promotion.  There’s a heightened artificiality to that queer-dream-realm wrestling venue that Reeder would later intensify & expand in Knives & Skin until it consumed an entire fictional suburb.  Otherwise, I can’t say I found much to either praise or pick apart with any fervor in Signature Move, which is just as straightforward & unassuming as Knives & Skin is uncanny & confounding.  It’s a cute enough movie on its own terms, though, and there can never be enough media celebrating how gay wrestling is as a microculture.  Otherwise, it appears that I time-traveled in the wrong direction when trying to get a firmer handle on Jennifer Reeder’s signature aesthetics as a director.  Her two follow-up features after Knives & Skin—last year’s Night’s End and the upcoming Perpetrator—are both supernatural horrors that promise a lot more room for the high-style, low-logic playfulness that caught my attention at Overlook than this cookie-cutter indie romcom was ever going to deliver.

-Brandon Ledet

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