Her Smell (2019)

There are few narrative templates as a familiar to American audiences as the rockstar addiction story, in which booze & illicit chemicals tear down celebrity gods from powerful highs to pitiful rock-bottoms. Hell, in the last year alone we’ve already seen this exact story play out in Vox Lux, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt, and yet another A Star is Born remake in a longstanding, haggard tradition. On a plot outline level, Her Smell makes no attempt to jazz up the melody of this narrative template. It’s well aware that this is a story we’ve seen too many times before, both in the tabloids and on the big screen. If anything, everyone in the film seems well past exasperated & fed up with watching the tired rock star addiction cliché play out spectacularly around them; they’re just helpless to stop it. As faithful to & disdainful of that cliché as the film appears to be, though, it still manages to feel like a fresh, unholy terror through the virtues of its execution, which does its best to rattle the audience to the point where we’re numb, drained, and begging for release.

A large part of what distinguishes Her Smell in this crowded field is the specificity of its setting. These tortured artist addiction narratives are typically reserved for machismo-driven cock rockers like Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, and whatever Americana archetype Bradley Coopers was aiming for in last year’s Oscar run. By contrast, this film is a pastiche of the rock ’n roll excess stories that seeped out of the femme 90s punk bands of the riot grrrl & grunge era. The most obvious 1:1 comparison for its fictional rock ‘n roller Becky Something would be Courtney Love on her worst behavior, but the film pulls from plenty other bands’ onstage personae & backstage drama for inspiration: The Breeders, Throwing Muses, L7 , Babes in Toyland, etc., etc., etc. We see the fictional band Something She at the height of their 90s heyday only in brief interstitials of backstage videocorder footage between much lengthier, more contemporary scenes of their post-fame bickering. It’s a hyper-specific yet undeniably iconic music scene that we rarely get to see depicted in feature films, which usually do little to challenge rock ‘n roll’s outdated reputation as a boys’ club. If we’re going to watch a familiar story of drugs wrecking a rock star’s life & career play out yet again, we might as well use it as an opportunity to see something that’s a much rarer treat in filmmaking of any era: women behaving badly.

Besides the specificity of the setting, Her Smell is also elevated above its potential genre tedium by the provocateur sensibilities of its director, Alex Ross Perry. Perry brings his usual thirst for pitch-black despair & total sensory overload to this Queen of Earth follow-up, content to violently shake his audience by the shoulders for as long as anyone could possible stand it. The major evolution to his usual mode here is a newfound sense of patience. Her Smell is well over two hours long. It’s structured like a stage play, with act-length scenes stretching on for torturous eternities as its addict antagonist torments everyone unfortunate enough to be lured into her orbit. Perry at least has the decency to release some steam from the pressure cooker for a rare moment of calm halfway through the runtime that effectively serves as an intermission, but for the most part he offers very little relief from the anxiety & hurt addiction wreaks on this once vibrant, now decaying music scene. His camera offers a dizzying, unflinching tour through the backstage labyrinth hellscapes behind the concerts that justify this vile behavior, with muffled far-off crowds screaming for more like the demons of Hell. That thunderous applause mixes with subtly unnerving synth flourishes to continually disorient viewers as we’re forced to endure nightmare drug parties long after the good vibes have soured. It’s exhausting, but impressively effective.

All this preamble is really just burying the lede of what truly makes Her Smell a must-see spectacle: Elizabeth Moss. Recalling the maddening whirlwind performances of legendary actors before her like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Moss plays the tragic rock ‘n roller Betty Something more as a rabid animal or a natural disaster than a human woman. Usually these madwoman breakdown dramas are sympathetic portraits of someone who’s cracked under the pressures of mental illness & impossible Patriarchal ideals. Here, Moss is simply allowed to be total, unforgivable nightmare – bursting into rooms backstage like a flood that wipes out all her friends, family, and colleagues along with her. She curses professional rivals with mysterious black-magic hexes, plays with her small child like a dog temporarily excited by a new chew toy, and feeds off the adoration of her audience as an enabling signifier that she can do no wrong. We never see Moss ingest drugs onscreen, but you can read each speck of the junk on her dazed, ghoulish face. It’s an intensely physical performance that expresses all the subtlety & nuance necessary to make this somewhat generic story specific to her character, so that all Perry has to do (besides write the damn thing) is stay out of her of way and allow it to play out in its full, rabid spectacle. It’s a mesmerizing feat of a performance from one of our greatest living actors.

The final achievement that makes Her Smell an exceptional specimen of its ilk is in the quiet release of its final moments, something I wouldn’t dare spell out here even if I thought it was possible. After two full hours of being terrorized by Elizabeth Moss’s feral showboating, everyone involved is exhausted on a molecular level, allowing for a rare moment of quiet grace I can’t recall ever seeing before in this Tragic Rock ‘n Roll Addict genre. I was genuinely, emotionally moved by the final lines of Her Smell, which was something I hadn’t expected given the familiarity of this thematic material. It shames me to admit that I had much stronger feelings overall for the superficially similar swing-for-the-fences mess of Vox Lux last year. Still, it’s undeniable that Moss & Perry broke through to something truly resonant & powerful by the time this film reaches it’s closing moments of denouement – whether through the specificity of character & setting, the willingness to dwell in intense discomfort, or the perversely cathartic pleasure of watching Women Behaving Badly.

-Brandon Ledet

Holiday Heart (2000)

The best way to sell the immediate appeal of the film Holiday Heart is likely to announce up front what it is in basic terms: an R-rated, made-for-TV Christmas movie starring Ving Rhames as a street tough drag queen. By now you’ve already decided if you’d ever be interested in watching such a thing, which gives me the freedom to admit that the film is unfortunately not as riotously fun as it could be, considering the potential of its premise. For all of the visual excitement of such a large, muscular man as Rhames playing far against type as a booming-voiced drag queen, Holdiay Heart goes out of its way to normalize & de-sex his character. Off-stage, Holiday Heart is a gay man, but his lover dies before the film begins and only exists in photographs, so the film’s intended Christian audience never has to actually see him expressing queer desire. He’s also introduced as a musician dedicated to worship at his local church before we ever see him perform under his drag persona, reassuring the audience up front that he is a deeply Christrian man and his sexual orientation does not define his relationship with God. Rhames makes for a fascinating appearance as a lumbering brute delicately holding telephones with his fingertips so as not to break a nail, but as a character his titular drag queen protagonist has no inner life outside faith in God and an emotionally vulnerable readiness to cry at the drop of a hat. He has all of the character nuance of Barney the Dinosaur and functions in the film mostly as a Magical Gay Man who can fix straight Christians’ problems through his (literally & figuratively) giant heart. The movie is still enjoyable as a novelty melodrama & Rhames’s few drag performances are aces, but that (lack of) characterization is such a bummer.

Holiday Heart is not just any lumbering, muscular drag queen; she’s the most popular one in town. Making a name for herself by lip-syncing to Supremes hits in a pageant queen tradition, Holiday is nightclub royalty, but still feels rawly empty after the loss of a long-term life partner. This family-sized hole in his heart is filled when he stumbles into a father figure role for the daughter of a near-destitute drug addict. The setup is awkward & messy, but Holiday essentially takes in a mother-daughter duo from the streets to protect them from the domestic abuse & homelessness that threatens their lives. The film is a strict melodrama from there (even name-checking Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life several times throughout to clue you into its tone), with many repetitive fallouts between Holiday & the mother he chooses to shelter as she slips in & out of relapses and flings homophobic slurs in his face to hurt his feelings (which is surprisingly easy). The fate of the little girl they’re both reluctantly tasked to raise hangs in the balance as they struggle between selfishness & self-preservation and The Christian Thing to Do. Obviously, this setup does not lead to a nonstop laugh riot, but the melodrama can often be over-the-top enough to elicit a chuckle or two. The earliest drug relapse is a depraved lighting of a microscopic roach found at the bottom of the mother’s purse. A flashback shows Holiday being shunned at his romantic partner’s funeral while weeping & singing “Baby Love” in full widow drag. A mild hip-hop beat plays over three cliché dramatic orchestral music that scores its more self-serious moments. And then, of course, the whole thing swerves at the last second to justify its pun title by staging its emotional climax on Christmas, a holiday that otherwise plays no part in the plot.

Overall, Holiday Heart is a lot more Christian and a lot less Christmas than it would have to be to satisfy as an over-the-top camp spectacle. The film’s super serious focus on Faith cuts down a lot of its sillier eccentricities and makes the majority of the experience feel more like a bummer than a party. Still, it has the dorky energy of a kids’ movie that just happens to feature a ton of F-bombs & homophobic slurs. It also can’t be over-stated how much the novelty of seeing Ving Rhames in traditional pageant queen drag can carry its less exciting melodrama slumps. The thing about drag, too, is that it’s performative & uncomfortable; most queens can’t wait to de-glamor after a performance, but Holiday lounges around in her stage garb as if it were a comfy bathrobe. He’s not at all coded as transgender, so that bizarre choice just registers as lagniappe opportunities to soak up the Ving-Rhames-as-a-drag-queen novelty, since the lip-sync performances themselves are too few & far between. Much of Holiday Heart registers as goofy & embarrassing, especially in its indulgences in gospel music & erotic slam poetry, but Rhames’s performance as the titular drag queen is genuinely mesmerizing. It’s just a shame they stripped his character of sexual desire & potential for society-disrupting chaos to better mold the film into a Christian-family melodrama about fatherhood. It’s a fun-enough movie as is, but it could have been an all-time with a little more personality.

-Brandon Ledet

Colossal (2017)

With his intricately-constructed time travel thriller Timecrimes, director Nacho Vigalondo found dark humor in the depths of selfishness in human self-preservation, exposing the ugliness of humanity as a species through the mechanism of a sci-fi fantasy plot. His American language debut, the kaiju-themed black comedy Colossal, shifts its genre & intended targets just slightly, but mostly repeats the trick. Through an outlandish genre film scenario, Colossal gradually strips away the veneer of polite smiles & social niceties that makes human beings appear to be kind, empathetic creatures to reveal the giant monsters lurking underneath. The destructive behavior of alcoholism & pretty selfishness in particular is giving an a measurable, kaiju-scale impact of real world damage. Much like in Timecrimes, the inner lives of Vigalondo’s characters aren’t given nearly as much attention as the implications of their actions within the larger, metaphor-heavy sci-fi plot, but the mystery of how that premise works & what it implies about the ugliness of humanity is enough to leave a lasting emotional bruise on the audience.

Anne Hathaway stars as a New York City socialite whose alcoholism finally crosses the threshold from “fun drunk” to full-on dysfunction, a conscious departure from the A-type personas she’s been saddled with since The Princess Diaries. Kicked out of the apartment she shares with an uptight boyfriend (Dan Stevens in full Matthew Crowley mode), she finds herself with few options but to move back to her small town childhood home. She’s employed as a barkeep by an egotistically sensitive childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis), which affords her way easier access to a steady stream of working class staples Jack Daniels & PBR than is likely healthy for her. The nightly blackouts that her addiction downturn sparks start to branch out from pure self-destruction to negatively affecting millions of people: namely, the city of Seoul, South Korea. Whenever our drunken anti-hero finds herself wasted in the playground near her childhood home at the crack of dawn, a corresponding kaiju appears in Seoul and mimics her exact, stumbling movements, blindly killing anyone in its path. Once these repeating scenarios become undeniably linked, she must face hungover epiphanies like, “I killed a shitload of people because I was acting like a drunk idiot again.” Getting sober & improving herself isn’t enough to solve the problem entirely, though. As soon as she starts to get her life back together, a second monster appears in Seoul, challenging her sense of control in an increasingly ugly situation.

What’s most fun about the metaphorical sci-fi plots of Vigalondo’s work is that they continue to develop & complicate after their initial reveal. It’s not enough that the connection between the protagonist’s alcoholism and the giant monster terrorizing Seoul is made explicit. The film also pushes through to explore why the playground location & time of day correspond with its appearance, why Seoul in particular is connected to her in the first place, and what is implied by the appearance of the kaiju’s robot challenger. The answers to this mystery are lazily revealed through the device of a decreasingly cloudy repressed memory, but are satisfying enough in their impact to justify the transgression. Complicating the kaiju metaphor detracts tremendously from the energy spent on potential inner conflict & emotional depth, but also expands the film’s themes beyond the selfish destruction of addiction to include crippling jealousy, the cycles of physical abuse, and a myriad of other forms of destructive behavior. By the end of Colossal you have to ask if the bigger monster is the protagonist’s addiction or the poisonous group of self-serving men that populate her life. It’s a testament to how strong the mystery & provoked themes of the central metaphor are that it doesn’t at all matter that the characters remain surface level deep. Vigalondo’s ideas are intricate, plentiful, and mercilessly cruel to the virtues of humanity enough to carry this small scale kaiju narrative on their own.

-Brandon Ledet

The Chosen (2015)

Movie night (which is, like, three nights a week) in the Boomer/Boomer’s Roommate household can be a chore sometimes. We are very decisive people when it comes to where and what we want to eat, who is and is not welcome in our apartment, and which Simpsons seasons are worth a damn. Of late, however, we’ve had to make a hard and fast rule: if we want to watch a movie, we have 10 minutes to browse Netflix (et al) and make a decision; if we can’t choose by the end of that time period, we give up and watch either one of our staple programs (The Simpsons, The Soup, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or Next Gen) or whatever TV show we’re currently working our way through (it’s Caprica at the moment, for those of you who are curious, since we binged Battlestar after the election for obvious reasons and needed a break afterward). His particular idiosyncratic desires also make it a challenge, albeit a fun one. Case in point: last night, I wanted to watch a horror comedy along the lines of Housebound (which we both found delightful), but he wanted something that specifically had the twitchy horror effects from The Ring or The Grudge, but not an actual J Horror flick. That’s an impossible thing to search for, but our interest in The Grudge did prompt Netflix to suggest The Chosen, which was more impressive and interesting (and funny, much to my delight) than expected, especially given its nondescript name.

The film follows nineteen year old Cameron, played by distractingly good-looking uberbabe Kian Lawley, who is apparently a YouTube star of some kind, although I’ve never heard of him before (maybe I’m just out of touch)*. He has an odd family situation: he and his mother Eliza (Elizabeth Keener, sister of Catherine) live with her parents. Grandpa is in a persistent vegetative state, and Nanny is in a persistent state of pettiness. Also living in the house are Eliza’s brother Uncle Joey (Chris Gann) and Angie (Mykayla Sohn), Cameron’s niece and Eliza’s granddaughter. Angie’s mother Caitlin (Angelica Chitwood) has been exiled from the house by Eliza while she tries (with mixed success) to break free of her heroin habit, an echo of Eliza’s own alcoholism, although the older woman is twelve years sober.

While Eliza is out of town on a work retreat, Cameron sneaks Angie out of the house for a visit to her mother’s apartment. When he hears thrashing, the cries of a baby, and screaming next door, he investigates over Caitlin’s protests. He discovers that Caitlin’s next-door neighbor Sabrina (Melissa Navia) is in the process of attempting to kill her ex-husband, who escapes, only for the crying baby to be nowhere in sight and Angie to now suddenly appear to be physically ill and behaving strangely. As apparently supernatural evil seems to begin swirling around Angie, Cameron has to try and figure out how to stop the monster that is coming for Angie before it’s too late.

The critical consensus surrounding this film is overwhelmingly negative; there’s not a single review on IMDb that passes the five (out of ten) star mark, and it’s sitting at a 30% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (there are no professional critic reviews, until this one, I guess, for a certain definition of “professional”). I can admit that I certainly see why the masses would be turned off by the film; it’s not very good from a lot of objective viewpoints. I remarked to my roommate during the film that I found Lawley to be a surprisingly good actor for an “unknown” his age (his YouTube stardom was only revealed to me when I looked up the Wikipedia article for the movie after our viewing), and he carries a lot of the film with his performance. Knowledge of his rise as an internet celebrity(?) may have colored the perception of his acting ability for others, but I don’t feel the need to rescind or attenuate or revise my praise for him after the fact.

Non-subjective negatives do abound, however. The special effects vary wildly in quality, from creepy subtlety in smoke and shadow to terrible-looking CGI demons that would look more at home in an Asylum/Syfy original co-production. There’s even a sequence in which Caitlin looks at a picture of infant twins that turn out to be Angie and her now-dead brother Jordan; the CGI on the photograph itself is terrible, and it only gets worse when Caitlin sheds a tear on the image and smudges it while trying to wipe the photo off. Maybe the assumption is that the target audience doesn’t know how physical photographs work (God help us all), but regardless of whether it does (or doesn’t) make sense logically, it’s still just awful to look at.

Other than that, the film’s first big narrative problem comes when Cameron has to revisit Sabrina once Angie starts acting strangely. She reveals all of the details about the movie’s supernatural antagonist, Lilith (yeah, that Lilith). There’s a right way and a wrong way to do exposition scenes, and this one is definitely on the far end of the scale from Raiders or Chinatown, erring very close to poor Frances Conroy’s infodump scene from Catwoman. At the very least, it serves its purpose and then moves along from there, if you can get past the cringe. Cameron’s final scene is also undercut by some notably bad acting, especially in comparison to the impressive subtlety he brought to other scenes; given that he’s supposed to be delivering a badass one-liner to the aforementioned bad CGI monster, it makes sense that a first-time actor would have some trouble pulling it off.

But enough about the negatives! It’s understandable that a film that turns its protagonists into, essentially serial killers (don’t overthink it; it’s not Psycho) wouldn’t have able to land every joke, but the roommate and I were both taken aback and cracked up when some out-of-context characters found their way into the film to stir up even more chaos. We also got a kick out of a slapstick scene of Cameron and his sister dragging a body and hitting every piece of furniture in the house with it, which was a refreshing moment of levity in a pretty dark flick. We also quite enjoyed some of the surprise twists; it’s rare that a movie manages to fool both of us, but this one did more than once.

It’s not going to be every viewer’s cup of tea, and I’d go so far as to say that it may deserve its poor critical score from an objective standpoint. But there’s too much that works in this film for me to give it a poor score. The film dives in immediately and throws the viewer into the unusual family situation with no belabored exposition, it contains too many interesting and funny characters to ignore, and it has surprises galore, including a very realistic depiction of addict behavior, surprises about bloodlines, and a likable lead that you find yourself rooting for even as his behavior becomes more erratic and unhinged. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have this movie. Give it a chance.

*I did check out Lawley’s YouTube channel after watching the movie. It’s terrible; it’s one of those “my buddy and I have a bajillion viewers for no discernible reason, we answer questions and laugh and such” channels. If you want a recommendation for what to watch instead, my favorite channels to which I subscribe are Red Letter Media (love me some Plinkett and Wheel of the Worst), Alison Pregler’s Movie Nights (Baywatching is a delight to me in these dark times), Every Frame a Painting for your film language critical needs, Pop Culture Detective, and Nerd Writer (even though I hate that “tired but overly emotionally invested adjunct” voice that he sometimes uses at the end of his video essays). Of course, the be-all end-all of YouTube brilliance is Lindsay Ellis, who has been an influence on me for years now and who never ceases to be brilliant. She’s basically doing a free class on the different disciplines of film theory through the lens of Michael Bay’s oeuvre right now, and it is a gift.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Don’t Knock Twice (2017)

I’m not sure it’s always necessary for a horror film to justify the surface pleasures of its scares & thrills by linking them to a dramatic metaphor. However, it can be frustrating when one comes close to achieving that dynamic without fully following through. The recent British ghost story Don’t Knock Twice enters into the modern tradition of horror flicks with clear metaphors specifically centering on the anxieties of motherhood: The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, most of XX, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc. The frustrating thing is that it nearly succeeds in joining those incredible ranks with an entirely​ new angle on motherhood terror its peers had not yet represented, but falls just short of hitting that target. Ultimately, its demonic scares & familial drama hang separately in the spooky air, never joining forces to drive home its significance as an individual work. That kind if strength in metaphor is not entirely necessary for a modern horror film to feel worthwhile, but without it Don’t Knock Twice struggles to feel substantial in any memorable way.

The always welcome Katee Sackhoff (Oculus, Battlestar Galactica) stars as an American sculptor and recovering drug addict who struggles to reconnect with her teenage daughter (Sing Street‘s Lucy “Riddle of the Model” Boynton) who she gave up for adoption in the British foster system. The daughter is reluctant for obvious reasons to welcome her mother, now essentially a stranger, back into her life, but finds herself in dire need of shelter from a supernatural threat. She & a fellow teen disturb a small, haunted shack near an interstate overpass where a witch’s ghost was rumored to live, knocking on the door twice (hence the title) after being told there would be urban legend-style consequences. The legend turns out to be exactly true and the teen girl finds herself haunted by a demonic witch that follows her from home to home to avenge the transgression. The monster itself (an aged, lanky, inhuman variation on the little girl from The Ring) and the film’s flashy over the top camera work make for plenty of effectively creepy moments: the witch climbing out of a kitchen sink, s ghost slitting its own throat, an Unfriended-style murder witnessed on Skype. The question of what the monster represents and how its terror communicates with the ex-addict mother’s suddenly possessive love for her estranged daughter, however, is much less effective.

There’s a distinct, nightmarish terror in this film’s teen victim being told that her parent, who has hurt her before, is now completely rehabilitated & worthy of trusting forgiveness. The vulnerability of welcoming that parent back into her life and not having her reservations for that forgiveness being taken seriously is not unlike being haunted by a literal ghost from the past that no one but she believes exists. If the demonic witch ghost that causes havoc in the film is supposed to somehow represent the mother’s past as an addict, however, Don’t Knock Twice doesn’t do much to help the metaphor along. A couple major plot twists that bring in murder mystery dynamics outside that central mother-daughter relationship suggest a mixed metaphor where the ghost also represents some kind of abusive evil in the foster system or, more likely yet, represents nothing specific at all. It’s not at all fair to burden Don’t Knock Twice with the expectation of a strong metaphor to support the presence of its demon witch antagonist, but the film comes too close to saying something freshly insightful about parental anxiety & the cycles of addiction not often depicted in horror cinema for the frustration in the shortcomings of its metaphorical potential to be ignored. When that aspect of its story doesn’t land, there’s not much left of its familial drama to hold onto and the film ultimately plays like a more visually striking version of mainstream horror titles like Lights Out & The Darkness. There’s nothing especially wrong with that distinction, but Don’t Knock Twice comes very close to being much greater than that limited ambition suggests.

-Brandon Ledet

White Girl (2016)

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twostar

Is White Girl a smartly pointed indictment of white privilege or an exploitative morality tale built around teenage hedonism and unwarranted sexual shaming in which a young woman is blamed for ruining a man’s life with her feminine wiles?  Does it help ease the film’s leering misogyny to know that it was written, directed, and produced by a woman? Are the characters & plot developed enough beyond 2D devices so that answering these questions could lead to anything more than eyerolling boredom? White Girl is such an obvious, clumsy button pusher that I’m mostly just annoyed that I allowed it to push my buttons. Somewhere out there a young college student is about to find their favorite movie in this cheap indie provocation, but I couldn’t get past the fact that it was participating in the very thing it was supposedly condemning. Every generation needs their version of Kids, I guess. The trick is catching yours when you’re still young enough to gasp instead of yawn.

Two white college students move into a predominately POC neighborhood and make fast friends & lovers out of the young, small fry drug dealers who work the corner outside of their apartment. Coming from a world of unpaid internships, liberal arts colleges, and money-filled care packages from naïve parents, they’re ill prepared for the real-life consequences of their actions and treat the lives of the men they fuck like playgrounds, a silly summertime indulgence. Luring their newfound cohorts outside their comfort zones, the girls push them into the dangerous territory of moving large quantities of product in wealthier, whiter circles. They also attract an obnoxious amount of attention to themselves & urge their beaus to start dipping into their own product (mostly cocaine, or, in the movie’s vernacular, “white girl”) instead of sticking to their normal routine of blunts & bong rips. This, of course, leads to a world of legal troubles, addiction, and clashes with bigger fish dealers in much bigger ponds. The film believes the tragedy it inevitably generates is a revelation of the way the white & wealthy are treated differently in a heartless system that targets POC. Mostly it just delivers the exact clichés you’d expect from miles away, revealing nothing that wasn’t already obvious from the start.

The main problem with White Girl is that it gleefully participates in the very evils it intends to expose. The film takes aim at a world of men who have a predatory sexual eye for young women’s bodies, but it leers slack jawed at them in the very same way. It wants to humanize the disenfranchised kid on the corner, but does so by making them the most blatant & ham-fisted dealer with a heart of gold cliché imaginable. It strives so hard to call out wealthy white woman privilege that it slips backwards into an old-fashioned mode of misogyny where women are to blame for men’s downfalls because they’re too sexually desirable to resist. Worse yet, the film often plays directly into the fears of casually racist parents when they send their darling baby girls into the big bad city for college. What if they move into a “sketchy” neighborhood, fall into casual sex & hard drugs routines with older men, and expose their naked bodies in public for easy popularity? Well, I never. White Girl wants to indulge in the sex & drugs & rock n’ roll lifestyle for easy hedonism, condemn the audience for leering along with it, make a point about white women using POC neighborhoods as consequence-free playgrounds, and then use POC narratives as consequence-free playgrounds. In so many ways the film participates in the very same entitlement it aims to indict.

I don’t mean to sound entirely negative here just because I personally had such an adverse reaction to the film’s casual provocations. I’d usually put in an effort to seek out some redeeming value in the film’s visual craft or occasionally effective performances, but the thematic fumbling left me with such a bitter taste that I don’t have the energy. I don’t believe White Girl is a despicable work worthy of any think piece outrage or moral protest. Its intentions in pointing out systemic racism & the harmful naïveté of unchecked privilege seems to be in the right place. It just chose an oddly compromised tone & outsider POV to tell its story, to the point where it tied its own shoelaces together on a screenplay level before it hit the ground stumbling. The film occasionally finds some interesting ideas in its clumsy button pushing, but doesn’t stand strong or confident enough to support its own convictions. If you’re going to get on a soapbox for a Big Message tirade, you should probably get your story straight before your rant begins. Self-contradiction makes for weak politics, especially if you’re using those politics to get away with indulging in a garish good time moments before getting serious.

-Brandon Ledet

Finders Keepers (2015)

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fourstar

Roger Ebert once called cinema “a machine that generates empathy.” He explained, “It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with people who are sharing this journey with us.” It’s a quote I (and many others) return to often because it is so remarkably insightful & concise, but I don’t think it’s ever more true than it is with documentaries. Documentaries have a way of taking a subject that seems so odd or quaint from the outside & establishing the all-too-relatable, often devastatingly depressing humanity within. While a memeified YouTube clip or local news segment can reduce someone to a modern day freak show (think “Hide your kids, hide your wife” or “Ain’t nobody got time for that”), documentaries have the luxury of digging deeper beyond that detached amusement & fascination. Suddenly someone you might mock for dedicating their life to worshiping the minor pop star Tiffany or donating their penis to a museum while still alive & breathing is revealed to be a real, living person you can’t help with empathize with on some level after being confronted with their humanity.

Finders Keepers is smart in the way it consciously pulls off this trick. The film documents a bizarre case in which a small town “entrepreneur” purchases a barbecue grill from a storage unit auction only to find a human foot inside. Instead of returning the foot to its original “owner” (John Wood), the foot’s new warden (Shannon Whisnat) decides to make a media circus out of the ordeal & initiates a years-long public legal battle over the foot in order to capitalize on the minor fame it affords him. He brands himself as “The Foot Man” & charges admission to see the grill he discovered it in as a kind of morbid roadside attraction. Local news affiliates eat up Whisnat’s snake oil greedily & openly, unashamedly refer to the fiasco as a “freak show”. The film portrays the early goings on with a lighthearted “Get a load of this!” attitude that lures the audience into joining in with the gawking, lest they cast the first stone. However, the empathy machine eventually revs up & things take a very sour turn.

What at first seems like a thin story for a feature length documentary is later revealed to be something fairly nuanced & sinister. Whisnat was not only making a mockery out of a lost limb (which would honestly be bad enough in itself), but also a familial tragedy. Wood lost his foot in the same airplane crash that killed his father. The recovery from this unexpected devastation sent the deceased man’s surviving family into a spiral of abuse, addiction, stagnation, and estrangement. Where Whisnat saw an opportunity for fame & financial exploitation in an accidentally discovered foot, Wood saw a physical manifestation of grief he couldn’t process in a healthy, productive way. Even more fascinating yet, the two men had a history together as children that raises issues like petty jealousy & class politics in a documentary that initially purports to be about something much smaller & more unassuming: a foot. Finders Keepers is eager to surprise at every turn with just how complex & uncomfortable this story can get when it’s initially treated as nothing ore than a joke by the public & the media.

I missed catching Finders Keepers (among several other promising-looking documentaries) at last year’s True Orleans Film Festival, which is an opportunity I’m sad to have squandered. Watching the film with a live audience seems like it’d be a great venue for appreciating what it delivers, since its M.O. is to make you laugh, then make you feel bad for laughing, then make you laugh through the pain. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this keen of an observation on the exploitative nature of media coverage & the memeification of human beings and although the film holds up really well as afternoon Netflix viewing, I’d love to have experienced this particular empathy machine at work with a room full of strangers. I imagine the delight & discomfort would’ve both been palpable.

-Brandon Ledet