Leto (2019)

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov is known for criticizing Russian government with his work on stage and screen, putting him high on Putin’s radar. During the final week of wrapping up and editing his most recent film, Leto, Serebrennikov was arrested for “fraud” charges, forcing him to complete his work on the film under house arrest. Many (including myself) believe this arrest was politically motivated, so the fact that Serebrennikov pushed through and completed Leto regardless of his circumstances is so badass. He even did it without being connected to the internet (Russian government took it away as part of his sentence). Leto, a musical film about Russia’s revolutionary rock movement in the early 1980s, has rebellion running through its veins. That alone is enough reason to watch this movie.

Leto (loosely translated from the Russian word for “Summer”) takes place in repressive Leningrad in the early 1980s. Rock music is loved by the Soviet Union’s youth, but older folk view it as music of the enemy because of its Western roots (influenced by Bowie, T. Rex, Lou Reed). The Leningrad Rock Club has recently opened and serves as the heart of the Soviet Union’s rock scene. The problem is that it’s overseen by the KGB and all musicians’ lyrics must be approved prior to performances. During the film’s beginning, the band Zoopark is performing at the Leningrad Rock Club to a seated audience being monitored by police. If anyone does anything beyond light claps for applause, head bobbing, and toe tapping, the police are on their ass. Watching a venue full of people quietly sitting while high-energy music is blaring through the speakers was beyond strange. Zoopark’s front man, Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), is a prominent figure in this new scene. He’s a cool guy who wears sunglasses indoors and keeps things as funky as possible while following the rules of the KGB. He eventually meets Viktor Tsoi (Te Yoo), the singer and songwriter from the band Kino. Viktor is a little more rebellious with his music than Mike, but not enough to get him in jail or kicked out of the rock club. The relationship between Mike and Viktor is an interesting one. It’s hard to tell if Mike views Viktor as competition or if he wants to take Viktor under his wing and guide him through this new, growing music scene. Their relationship becomes even more confusing when Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), Mike’s wife and mother to his child, gets permission from Mike to hook up with Viktor.

Zoopark and Kino are actual bands and Mike and Viktor are real-life members of those bands. However, this film is not considered to be a biopic. It’s more like historical fiction loosely based on two bands considered to be founding fathers of Russian rock music. There are times throughout the film where characters break the fourth wall to say, “This really didn’t happen.” prior to a scene. It’s a quirky way to remind us all that we are not watching a biopic, even though it really feels like we are. I went into this film knowing nothing about Russian rock music, much less Russian rock music from the early 80s, and I didn’t feel like I was ever not in the know. The film sort of jumps into the plot without any background or history, but its in-the-moment style is done so well that there is no need for a newcomer like me to be brought up to speed.

What really made Leto memorable for me was the film’s unique style. The entire film is in black and white (with a few flashbacks in grainy color), and there are musical moments with hand-drawn scribbles floating all over the screen. My favorite musical number was a rendition of the Talking Heads hit “Psycho Killer” during a violent train altercation. I’ve watched it multiple times. Let it be known that there aren’t that many musical numbers, so don’t avoid seeing this movie if you’re not a fan of musicals.

-Britnee Lombas

Sunkist Family (2019)

On a recent 9-hour flight, I was browsing the in-flight movies that Delta Airlines had to offer. And yes, I did watch Delta’s controversial version of Booksmart in which the gay love scenes were cut (I wasn’t expecting them to be), but thankfully, Delta is working on incorporating the scenes into the films again after all the recent backlash. While browsing through the available movies, I came across the Korean family dramedy Sunkist Family, and it is one of the most heartwarming films to come out this year. To my surprise, this is the first film from female South Korean director Kim Ji-Hye, who served as both the film’s director and screenwriter. Her work is extremely impressive as she is able to keep this very sex positive movie quirky and sweet without ever coming close to being raunchy.

After about 20-something years of marriage, Joon Ho and Yoo Mi can’t keep their hands off each other.  They somehow manage to take care of their three children and run a small butcher shop while still making time to have sex anywhere and everywhere. The small suburban home that the couple share with their three children is a hilarious madhouse. Each kid has their own unique personality that really adds a lot of flavor to the family’s wacky dynamic. Chul Won is a sexually challenged teenage boy, Kyung Joo is an angsty teenage girl awaiting her first period, and Jin Hae is an extremely observant young girl. A good chunk of the film focuses on Jin Hae’s perspective of the family’s drama, and it is ever so charming and insightful.

Joon Ho and Yoo Mi’s perfect marriage takes a turn for the worst when Joon Ho’s first childhood love moves in next door. She pulls him back into his artistic roots while being a bit flirtatious, and Yoo Mi is not having it. Basically, one misunderstanding after another begins to tear the family apart, and little Jin Hae does her very best to bring them back together. Part of her plan includes spraying her entire family with what she thinks is “love spray,” but it’s actually some sort of penis spray intended to make men last longer in bed. This is perhaps my favorite moment in the film. The entire family is having a heated argument and Jin Hae comes to the rescue with the spray to help everyone love each other again. The whole spray scene is filmed in slow motion and looks so magical even though the reality of it is sort of disturbing.

Sunkist Family really focuses on how important communication is at all levels of a family. Husband to wife, parent to child, child to parent, etc. The miscommunication between the Sunkist Family almost destroys them, and this is something that most families can relate to. Whether it’s Jin Hae’s confusion on the world of sex or Joon Ho’s reluctance to tell his wife that he is visiting his lady neighbor instead of going to work, talking and being honest with one another is what is needed to keep this family together. This entire film is such a treat, and I’m looking forward to adding it to my ever-growing collection as I plan on watching again and again.

-Britnee Lombas

Jezebel (2019)

I first heard of the new memoir drama Jezebel when the writer-director-star of the film, Numa Perrier, was interviewed on an episode of the Switchblade Sisters podcast this summer, discussing how the deeply personal project came to be. It’s near-impossible to resist the film’s premise as “a true story” wherein Perrier looks back to her teen years in the late 1990s, when her older sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work. The context & conflict of that premise is only made more intriguing by the fact that Perrier performs in the film herself as that older sister character, making the project as personal & intimate of an account as possible. What surprised me most about the film when it screened at the New Orleans Film Fest after months of anticipation was how sweet & delicate it was willing to be with its subject despite its creator’s obvious closeness to its emotionally raw context. Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.

Thematically, Jezebel falls somewhere between the poverty-line desperation of The Florida Project and the tense online sex work fantasy realms of Cam, but it’s not nearly as aggressive as either of those predecessors in terms of style or sensibility. Mostly, we follow the fictional Tiffany (who performs under the titular stage name Jezebel) as she ping-pongs between two suffocating, cramped locales: an extended-stay hotel room in Vegas and a nearby office space that’s been converted into an online pleasure dome. She has zero privacy in either her work or home life, where her “alone time” & her professional sex acts are quietly under surveillance by authority figures in just the other room. Understandably, a lot of the emotional drama is centered on her relationship with her older sister, who’s ultimately doing the best she can to equip the youngster with a self-sustaining skill (one the sister picked up herself over years of working dial-up hotlines). What’s more striking than that increasingly tense relationship, however, is Tiffany’s relationship with her own body & inner desires. The circumstances of how she got roped into sex work are far short of ideal, but she quickly comes to enjoy the freedom, power, confidence and expanding sexual passions the profession offers her – in a relatively low-stakes form of sexual labor she’s careful not to escalate. That conflict between desperation & autonomy rages throughout the movie, but it is mostly contained under a wryly humorous, surprisingly sweet surface.

While it’s nowhere near as deliberately horrifying as the chat sessions in Cam, Jezebel does a great job of distinguishing both the dangers & escapist fantasies inherent to working as a camgirl. The flood of unfiltered, hedonistic comments from anonymous men online are an overwhelming menace here, something Tiffany is especially vulnerable to as the only black girl working at her jobsite. There’s also just something horrific about how devastatingly young she looks as a 19-year-old babe in the woods who’s treating this incrementally risky line of work as a self-discovery playground. Watching her learn to wield power over her clients (one of them voiced by eternal sleazebucket Brett Gelman) or developing an internal sexual persona of her own, you can tell that working as a camgirl has overall been a genuine good in her life, but it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching a vulnerable child navigate potentially dangerous waters that are gradually rising above her head.

Perrier’s experience in the field is fascinating for the period-specific details of how early webcam lag, lack of audio, and chatroom etiquette informed the first wave of camgirl artistry (which mostly amounted to pantomimed sex acts instead of The Real Thing). Where Jezebel really shines, though, is in how the complexity of larger themes like familial politics, racial othering, financial power dynamics, and self-discovery are effortlessly, subtly weaved into a story that could have so easily been played for flashy shock value. Few things about this scenario are easy or fair, but Perrier finds plenty of room to convey a full inner life for her semi-fictional teenage surrogate, including touching bouts of joy, tenderness, and self-fulfillment despite the subject’s potential for pure exploitation and despair.

-Brandon Ledet

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Brian Raftery’s film criticism book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen has had many pop culture pundits gazing twenty years back to 1999 as a creative pinnacle of modern cinema. Frankly, I don’t fully buy the claim that the year was anything special, as many of the examples cited as phenomenal releases that year – Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Election, Audition, etc. – were not immediately hits upon release and took years to gain cultural traction as significant works. Every movie year is practically the same; most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift though the deluge to single out the gems. I’m sure in twenty years’ time, with enough breathing room to reflect back and grow into nostalgia for the modern era, someone could compile a long enough list of standouts to contend that 2019 was the best movie year ever. Or 2017. Or 2003. Or any other year. Still, even if I don’t fully buy Raftery’s thesis the way other pop culture nerds have seemed to, the mental exercise of singling out a particular year for collective re-examination has been fun, and it’s thankfully lifted the profiles of smaller, niche films that still haven’t gotten their full due as great works. I’ve seen this play out with movies I personally love in genres that aren’t always critically respected – especially femme high school cruelty comedies like But I’m a Cheerleader!, Jawbreaker, Cruel Intentions, and Drop Dead Gorgeous. I’ve also been pushed outside my own comfort zone to check out excellent titles I’ve overlooked, like The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I was thirteen years old when The Talented Mr. Ripley was first released, and I did not understand its appeal from the scattered snippets of it I caught at the time whatsoever, other than that it was a thriller made for grown-ups. In fact, I’ve often mixed the film up with the innocuous-looking The Thomas Crown Affair remake of the same year, likely because they both involve con artists named Tom doing sexy European crimes among high-society snobs. I do get it now, though. Despite being generally suspicious of the “[Year X] was a better Movie Year than [Year Y] or [Year Z]” mode of criticism, I’m happy this celebration of 1999 cinema has boosted The Talented Mr. Ripley’s profile, as it’s the exact kind of “movies made for adults” that people bemoan have disappeared from the big screen in recent years (at least in terms of major studio Hollywood productions). Story-wise, it’s no less sleazy than lowly genre films like Single White Female or Fatal Attraction, but it’s dressed up with enough handsome costuming, cinematography, and in-their-prime movie stars to convince you of its intellectual value as a night out at the Theatre. Plus, it’s got something going for it that too few Hollywood productions can boast now, in the 90s, or otherwise: it’s gay. Not undertone/subtext/implied gay either; this is a menacing thriller about handsome young men who love each other to death in an explicitly gay context, leaving no wiggle room for any other interpretation. Of course, because it’s Hollywood, there’s unfortunately no explicit gay sex onscreen, but you must take your minor victories where you can find them. If only I had clued into the seedy, sordid, sexual menace of the film’s surface pleasures as a teen instead of passing it over as a boring drama for boring adults; it might have been a decades-long favorite instead of a late discovery.

Matt Damon stars as the titular Tom Ripley, a piano tuner turned con artist who grifts his way into the upper class of the jazzy, closeted days of the 1950s. After costuming as a Princeton alumnus at a swanky NYC cocktail party, Ripley is hired to retrieve a millionaire’s spoiled-brat son, Dickie (Jude Law), back from his permanent vacation in coastal Italy. Dickie has been living it up on his father’s dime, all the while fucking any & every willing participant who crosses his path – including a socially compatible fiancé (Gwyneth Paltrow), a village full of naïve working class women, and also possibly a string of closeted boytoys from his college days (most notably including Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a grotesque frat-boy ogre). At one point he even vows to fuck an icebox, the hedonist, simply because he loves cold beer. If there’s any major fault in The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s that the who’s-fucking-who dynamics at play remain a little ambiguous, as there is somehow no onscreen sex in this incredibly horny movie. It’s all kept behind closed doors, mirroring the hush-hush extramarital sexuality of its temporal setting. Ripley himself, a supposedly dishonest con artist who elbows his way into a wealth class where he doesn’t “belong,” is the only character who is clear & direct about his intentions with Dickie, romantic or otherwise. He confesses, “I’ve gotten to like everything about the way you live. It’s one big love affair!” It’s difficult to give him too much credit for the virtue of that honesty, however, since the means by which he attempts to claim Dickie’s lifestyle & sexual charisma for himself quickly escalates from simple grifts to a complex web of lies – one with an exponential body count. Ripley is blatantly honest about being a liar, a forger, and an impersonator by trade, but he doesn’t quite let on how violent he’s willing to get to protect the believability of those lies once they inevitably spin out of control.

Thematically, there isn’t much going on in The Talented Mr. Ripley that you couldn’t find in plenty of other wealth-class thrillers. The way Dickie plays with other people’s lives like a spoiled brat with a shiny new toy and the incestuous in-circle politics wherein the ultra-rich all know each other (which is often the downfall of Ripley’s schemes) are common tropes in this setting. The unspoken cruising & spark of homosexual lust in a closeted past is of a rarer breed in pop culture media, but not totally unique either. If nothing else, Patricia Highsmith, who wrote this movie’s source material novel, also covered that territory in her work that eventually became Carol (and both adaptations feature Cate Blanchett!). Beneath its handsome, prestigey surface The Talented Mr. Ripley is essentially a genre film – a horny European-set crime thriller of a very particular type. Like with all great genre films, the exceptional achievements it manages to pull off are rooted in minor details & aesthetic choices, not in story or character dynamics. Seeing these particular young movie stars at their sexiest (Hoffman excluded) in gorgeous wealth-class locales is perhaps the most astonishing detail of all, as this is the kind of genre film that’s now relegated to small-budget indies & foreign pictures like Double Lover, The Duke of Burgundy, or Piercing in the 2010s. The other exciting quirks & details of the picture (like Dickie wielding “You can be quite boring” as the ultimate insult or Tom bludgeoning wealthy brats with tools of their own class – like boat ores & Grecian statues) can’t compete with that kind of bygone-era appeal. I can’t match the general enthusiasm for 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever, but I was at the right age then (as many of the Millennial & Gen-X critics writing this stuff were) to have enough nostalgia for the era to make The Talented Mr. Ripley an incredibly sumptuous example of its genre. Well, that, and the gay stuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Gully Boy (2019)

When director Curtis Hanson died a few years back, there was an understandable outpouring of appreciation online for a few of his more notable films – titles as disparate as L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and The River Wild. I was mostly on-board with this posthumous gushing for a fairly low-key studio director, but the praise that confounded me at the time was the effusive love for his hit battle-rap melodrama 8 Mile. I just can’t imagine a 2010s audience willingly looking at or listening to Eminem on purpose (especially not the Film Twitter crowd), no matter how rousing the film’s against-the-odds/rise-to-fame story of a trailer park rapper made good could be in the moment. One of the many miracles of the 2019 Indian melodrama Gully Boy – directed by Zoya Aktar – is that it’s finally enabled the world to enjoy the emotional triumph of 8 Mile without having to look at or listen to Eminem, something we sadly can’t always avoid. Detroit’s favorite White Boy makes a brief appearance in a magazine clipping pasted in the lyrics journal of Gully Boy‘s titular aspiring rapper, but that image is mostly just a get-it-out-of-the-way acknowledgement of 8 Mile‘s influence. It’s almost unavoidable that this lengthy Indian battle-rap melodrama will be reductively contextualized as the Bollywood 8 Mile, but I hope that descriptor doesn’t scare anyone off from giving it a fair chance on its own terms. No offense meant to the legacy of Curtis Hanson, but Gully Boy only borrows 8 Mile‘s basic structure in order to create something far superior in both craft &  emotional heft. Its class politics hit harder. Its romantic drama is genuine & heartfelt. And, most importantly, there’s little to no Eminem to be found, which is always a plus.

Loosely based on the lives of “the original gully boys” Naezy & Divine (two rap-fame success stories from the slums of Mumbai), this sprawling melodrama doesn’t necessarily do anything narratively or thematically that you wouldn’t expect based on its early acknowledgement of its 8 Mile story template. That’s why I was shocked to find it one of the most emotionally moving, politically invigorating films I’ve seen all year. Half an aspiring street musician’s triumph against the odds of soul-crushing class disparity and half a Romeo & Juliet-style tale of doomed romance, Gully Boy fully utilizes its 2½ hour runtime to ensure that neither of those tracks plays as a rushed afterthought. An unassuming hip-hop nerd (played by the superhero-handsome Ranveer Singh), living in an overcrowded shanty with his overbearing family and facing a future of lifelong servitude, finds the courage to voice his frustrations with economic injustice in his YouTube-uploaded rap videos. His mentor & idol in the Mumbai’s minor-but-growing rap scene (whom he has a big, goofy boy-crush on) is phenomenally supportive of the new kid on the block, pushing him past class lines & familial roadblocks to a rapid, bewildering success he didn’t know was possible (not least of all because of his debilitating shyness). His efforts to maintain a lifelong romance with a childhood sweetheart under intense scrutiny & surveillance only complicates this rapid rise to fame, which explodes the scope of his world of possibilities from a cramped neighborhood to a global playground. Both of these simultaneous storylines are surprisingly effective, as both are ruthless in refusing to pull political punches in their discussions of class,  gender, privilege, abuse, and – above all else – power. You already know every beat of the story this movie wants to tell, but there’s a heartfelt conviction to its messaging that makes it feel like an anomaly in the rise-to-rap-fame genre.

I suppose you could take an objective look at this film as a fascinating snapshot of American pop culture’s omnipresence as a global export. It’s alarming to see the full scope of how much of our bullshit makes a significant cultural impact worldwide: Eminem, Nas (who’s listed as an Executive Producer here), dabbing, Grand Theft Auto, conversations that inanely pit commercial rap against Real Hip-Hop, etc. Gully Boy  is just as aware of that potential fascination as it is of its inevitable 8 Mile comparisons, though, staging scenes where wealthy American tourists treat our titular hero-rapper’s talent & poverty as a sideshow novelty. Mostly, there isn’t much room to objectively examine Gully Boy as a cultural object all, as it’s continually engaging on a personal, intimate level that more than transcends its potential Bollywood 8 Mile status. Translating the American rise-to-rap-fame story template to an Indian filmmaking sensibility only strengthens its merits as a genuinely engaging melodrama & an act of political Art, not at all reducing it to a novelty act the way you might expect. The lengthier runtime allows you to fully invest in both the rap-hero’s artistry & his rocky romantic life instead of either track feeling rushed or inauthentic. It’s amazing how well rap lyrics like “The lava of my words will melt my shackles,” and sweet nothings like “You let me be myself” land when there’s enough breathing room to fully flesh out their context. Also, Indian cinema’s built-in musical breaks from reality provide the perfect platform for Gully Boy‘s hip-hop music videos, which voice righteously angry class politics at full length & full passion in their allotted space. As much as I’ve enjoyed other 8 Mile improvements & revisions over the last couple decades (Hustle & Flow, Patti Cake$, Straight Outta Compton, etc.), this is now the definitive benchmark for the rise-to-rap-fame genre in my eyes. No offense meant to Curtis Hanson (but plenty of offense meant to Eminem, who remains The Worst and should be avoided whenever possible).

-Brandon Ledet

The Reflecting Skin (1990)

There are only a few films I could cite that touch on the exact discomforting horrors of childhood explored in the 1990 curio The Reflecting SkinGummo, Tideland, Heavenly Creatures, Welcome to the Dollhouse, maybe certain aspects of Pan’s Labyrinth. None come anywhere near predating this forgotten indie cinema relic, yet they’ve each garnered more notoriety for their willingness to Go There when it comes to discomforting childhood fears, violence, and psychosexuality. I presume that’s mostly because no one really knew what to do with The Reflecting Skin in 1990, a sentiment I can confidently echo nearly thirty years later. The film was met with exuberant applause & demands for additional screenings when it debuted at Cannes, but it’s since faded into cultural obscurity due to a shamefully spotty history of physical media distribution. Thanks to a new digital restoration of the film for its first-ever Blu-Ray release, I was lucky to catch it completely blind at the local arthouse venue Zeitgeist, wholly unprepared for the haunted curio cabinet I’d be stumbling through for 90 intensely uncomfortable minutes. It felt like plucking a cursed book from a dusty library shelf and unknowingly releasing something wicked that was deliberately forgotten for the sake of humanity’s safety.

There’s a kind of protective innocence to the premise of The Reflecting Skin that doesn’t fully convey its antagonistically perverse tone. In the film, a young boy who lives at his family’s rural 1950s gas station creates an intricate series of fantasies to help soften the horrors of the insular world he occupies. Confused why his father is a local pariah, why his brother (Viggo Mortensen in his debut film role) is prematurely fading into illness, and why his snot-nosed peers are showing up dead around town, the child creates a fantasy scenario where his young, widowed neighbor is a vampire that’s draining the community of its vitality by literally draining its blood. The audience is never fooled by this illusion, as the widow in question (although stylistically a precursor to Tilda Swinton’s turn in Only Lovers Left Alive) is clearly just a young woman racked with grief. Still, our twisted little POV character’s interpretation of the world around him is even more of a shock without the possibility of a supernatural threat supporting it. We know exactly why the children around him are dying, why his family is being ostracized from the local community, and what’s haunting his “war hero” brother. Seeing those harsh realities clash with equally harsh fantasies never gets easier as the film goes on, especially since the fantasies only encourage our devious little protagonist to behave more monstrously as they spiral out of control.

The POV character of The Reflecting Skin is a chipper little devil in an off-putting bowl cut. He’s endlessly cruel in the way a lot of bored, unsupervised children can be – gleefully tormenting all helpless animals in his striking distance as a form of escapist entrainment, whether they be a grieving widow or a pathetic bull fog. His instinct when he encounters something precious or beautiful in his grimly dour environment is to immediately destroy it beyond recognition, an instinct the film generally frames as the commanding ethos of humanity & Nature. This destructive impulse and the hopeless cruelty of Life are discussed in flat, stage play-style dialogue, a tone accentuated by the nonprofessional child actors who are tasked to deliver it. Phrases like, “Innocence can be hell,” and “The nightmare of childhood . . . and then it only gets worse,” hang in the air like a black-magic curse over the sparse setting. Characters’ fixation on animalistic details like scent, skin, and thirst take on a literary importance that contextualizes its vampiric lore in a distinctly Southern Gothic tradition. The children of The Reflecting Skin are creepily obsessed with the mortality, sexuality, violent perversions, and biological limitations of adulthood in a way that confuses them, weaponizes them, and makes them vulnerable for exploitation. And when they grow up, it only gets worse. It’s an absolutely brutal worldview that no amount of escapist fantasy could ever fully cover up.

The oil painting-reminiscent wheat fields of this film’s farmland setting have since become such common cinematic language that it’s now considered a memeable cliché (usually at the expense of Terrence Malick). Its stage play dialogue and flat child-acting limitations could also be a major barrier for modern audience to fight past. I personally found both to be appropriately harsh, sparse backdrops for the film’s brutal worldview, in which life is a punishing force of destruction that deliberately targets the most beautiful & fragile things among us. Children, women, queer people, and sensitive men are squashed like bugs for the crime of existing, and the only thing protecting them from total annihilation is a romantic fantasy that can crumble at any moment. The worst part is that they can be just as guilty of passing that cruelty along as much as anyone else. The Reflecting Skin might be too cruel, too cynical, too stilted, and too stylized to strike a chord with everyone who stumbles into its nightmarish childhood fantasy unprepared (our screening did have at least one ceremonial walk-out midway through), but if you can fully sink into the hellish wavelength it establishes the experience is unforgettably unnerving. I watched it with my jaw agape for most of its runtime, as if it were a forbidden displeasure the world had meant to protect me from by burying it in several decades of obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Smithereens (1982)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee & Boomer watch Smithereens (1982).

Brandon: After the first-wave NYC punk scene was broken up by calamities like heroin addiction, international fame, and the apathy of adulthood in the late 1970s, there was still a waning subculture of outcast artists who stayed behind in its wake to feed off the scraps. Energized by the D.I.Y. ethos of punk’s democratization of Art and enabled by a then-decrepit New York’s offerings of Cheap Living, the so-called No Wave scene of the early 80s produced a few acclaimed underground artists of its own: Sonic Youth, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, Jim Jarmusch, etc. With no technical skill required (or even desired, really), No Wave encouraged young artists to experiment in all mediums available to them (painting, writing, music, filmmaking, sculpture) in an aggressively unpolished manner that sneered at gatekeeping criteria like training & talent. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave but rejecting the plotless arthouse experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, the newfound filmmakers who borrowed 8mm cameras for the first time in the No Wave scene filtered straight-forward narrative filmmaking though the desperate, no-budget means of their post-punk environment. Against all odds, they often told traditionally coherent stories but in a way that made the audience feel like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Even more so than the sci-fi feminist call-to-arms Born in Flames or the horned-up nightmares of Richard Kern, the most exemplifying specimen of No Wave cinema I’ve seen to date is Susan Seidelman’s debut drama Smithereens. There’s a certain romanticism to the No Wave scene’s promise of free artistic rein over a crumbling city where rent, food, pornography, and (if you don’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. Smithereens reveals an honest, repugnant stench that hung over that scene, however, depicting a desperate group of nobodies stewing in the haggard leftovers of punk’s post-CBGB stagnation. In the film, a petty thief & shameless charlatan named Wren (Susan Berman) attempts to make a name for herself as a punk rock superstar by any means necessary. Lying, manipulating, exploiting, posing, and self-promoting her way across the city, Wren burns an endless number of bridges on her path to success in a World-Famous Punk paradigm that had already disappeared long before she arrived on the scene as snotty New Jersey teen. Her naked ambition and eagerness to throw “friends” under the bus for any old get-fame-quick opportunity leaves her increasingly isolated in a city that has little left to give. Outside a half-hearted love triangle Wren cultivates between a hopelessly normie boy from Montana who bores her (Paul) and her exploitative equal in a half-famous punk has-been (Eric, played by real-life punk burnout Richard Hell), the film is largely plotless. It isn’t until the climatic emotional crescendo when Wren revisits every bridge she’s burned in the preceding 90 minutes minutes (to an anxious, recursive soundtrack from The Feelies), searching the rubble for anything she can work with only to find soot, that it becomes clear what story the film is telling. It’s the story of a scene in decline and the newly isolated punk weirdos who find themselves fading away with it. In other words, its peak No Wave.

Smithereens is brimming with the exact art-on-the-cheap spirit that I’m always searching for in my entertainment media. I’m endlessly excited by this anyone-can-do-it philosophy of D.I.Y. filmmaking. The soundtrack is bolstered by some of my favorite bands from the era: The Feelies, The Voidoids (fictionalized here as the titular Smithereens), and ESG. Seidelman’s origins as a fashion design scholar shine through with a trashy, pop art-inspired thrift store chic. The film is also just interesting as a no-budget precursor to her more well-known traipsing-across-NYC film Desperately Seeking Susan. Still, I debated with myself whether Smithereens would appeal to the rest of the Swampflix crew. To me, it’s a perfect selection for the summertime season, but only in a potentially alienating way that captures the Summer Bummer feeling of being lonely, bored, broke, and overheated in a grimy major city. This is a sad, sweaty, lethargic movie about a desperate bully who finds herself increasingly isolated as a result of her own actions & ambitious. I found the frustration in Wren’s lack of shame or emotional intelligence both uncomfortably relatable to my own youthful prickliness and fascinating as a self-portrait of No Wave’s dwindling D.I.Y. romanticism. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being turned off by her petty, plotless exploits, though, especially if they’re not already on the hook for the history & aesthetic of classic NYC punk.

Boomer, since your past Movie of the Month selections have included titles like Citizen Ruth & Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I assume it’s fair to say that you’re no stranger to loving movies about Difficult Women Who Make Frustrating Decisions. Yet, I know you often find yourself alienated by the performative #edginess of the punk scene that Wren typifies here (to her own demise). As such, I’m just going to open this up with the broadest question possible: What did you think of Smithereens? Was the story of one prickly punk’s mounting desperation in the dying days of No Wave at all compelling to you?

Boomer: This is a great question, and I appreciate it. While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel like it read like a greatest hits redux of past Movies of the Month, both of those that I liked and those that I, um, didn’t. The scene in which Wren visits her sister and her family to beg for money comes almost at the exact point in the film when Ruth does the same to her sibling in Citizen Ruth, and although it never made it to become MotM, I was shocked to see Brad Rijn (credited as “Rinn”) here, essentially presaging his similar role as a good looking bumpkin-come-to-New-York (and all for the love of a troublesome woman) in Special Effects. It’s true that I didn’t much care for Born in Flames, even a little bit, and that one of the things I cited in our discussion of that film was that “1980s New York was an ugly place,” but that ugliness is used wonderfully here in a way that Flames failed to capture. If there’s anything that I hate more than performative edginess, it’s a plotline about someone trying to make it in New York, especially in contemporary media when the New York that people dream about hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration; that horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bones have been ground to dust. But! In this film it works for me, not just because the New York That Was still existed in its time, albeit in a dwindling way.

There’s a realness and a viscerality to every location in the film, probably because they are real: A vacant lot near the highway where Paul parks his van for all intents and purposes resembles nothing so much as the post-war Vienna captured on film in The Third Man. The hallway outside of (Wren’s friend) Cecile’s apartment feels real; the stairwell in which Wren is belittled by her landlord and upstairs neighbor is likewise real. And the location with the greatest verisimilitude, of course, is Eric’s shithole apartment, which is so like so many of the shitty homes I’ve been in throughout my musician-adjacent life, in places where real art is still happening, right down to the creepy roommate. In virtually any other movie, I would probably despise a character like Wren: an over-30 loser with no real skills, trying to market herself as a potential band manager despite having no apparent connections or talent, unable to manage even the most basic of human interactions without blowing up like a rage filled pufferfish, useless and dangerous and annoying to all around her. And yet … I actually like Wren, and it’s not just because she ends up broken and homeless at the end. Although I’m not like her upstairs neighbor, who slut-shames Wren when she comes home to find that she’s been evicted, there is a part of me that finds it utterly justifiable that someone who uses everyone around her, pushes her way into bars and bar backrooms to ingratiate herself with strangers, and epitomizes all of the worst aspects of the anti-establishment ethos ends up with nothing. Even before she gets what’s (in a way) coming to her, I still found myself forgiving her, even though she’s The Worst. Maybe it’s just that I understand what it’s like to fall for a shitbag musician and end up losing because of it, or maybe it’s because the film is so firmly planted in an ethos that I’m willing to accept, for once, I don’t know. But I like Wren, and I liked Smithereens, all in spite of (or perhaps because of) myself.

Britnee, what did you think of the way that the characters are portrayed in the film? I particularly like both the prostitute who huddles with Paul in his van for warmth and Cecile, who seems like a genuinely nice person who cares about Wren but won’t let herself be walked over, even in Wren’s most desperate, screechy moments. Was there anyone in particular who stood out to you? How might these characters have been handled differently had this film been directed by a man?

Britnee: I had a difficult time finding any likeable characters in Smithereens. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the film, because I did enjoy it very much; I just didn’t care about how any of the characters ended up. Wren and Eric’s narcissism made me want to puke, and Paul’s inability to stand up for himself was more annoying than adorable. The only character that I really vibed with was Eric’s business partner that gets in a brawl with Wren in the cafe. She didn’t put up with Wren’s shit, and she served some of that classic sleazy New York showbiz sass that I just love so much. I wanted more of her!

Had Smithereens been directed by a man, I think Wren would’ve been more of a victim. A girl trying to make her dreams come true in the big city while juggling relationships between a small-town boy and a musician is usually going to be portrayed that way, not unlike another one of our fabulous Movie of the Month choices, Hearts of Fire. Instead, Wren’s character was so raw, so real. Yes, she is a terrible person, but that’s a good thing. Seidelman wasn’t concerned with making Wren an appealing female lead. She was more concerned with giving us a glimpse into the reality of a No Wave chick pissing around NYC. Speaking of pissing, I also don’t think a male director would’ve given us that moment of watching Wren pop a squat in that dark, dusty parking lot. It’s such a real moment that I have experienced way too many times. That may be the only time when I slightly connected with Wren.

Brandon, I’m curious as to what you thought about Wren’s sister and brother-in-law. Do you think they represented the type of background that Wren came from (pure chaos and beefaroni dinners)? Would you have felt differently about Wren without having this insight into her family life?

Brandon: My only reaction to Wren’s familial background is recognizing it as true to life. Besides the clichés of suburban mall punks and the trust-fund kids who play dress-up as crusties, a lot of the punk community is a working-class resistance to the status quo that keeps them in place. Even the more priveleged kids who find themselves ascribing to punk ideology usually do so out of a guilt or disgust with the safe, affluent families they were born into, who’ve presumably achieved their wealth at the expense of people lower on the economic “ladder.” The difference is that those middle-class suburban & trust-fund kids often “mature out of” punk as their teenage rebellion cools, whereas working-class runts like Wren (and, more often, abused runaways) don’t have the same safety nets to fall back on. A lot of characters in Smithereens mourn that their scene is dwindling, but mostly because they have to give up on the romanticism of punk squalor to move back in with their boring parents, almost invariably somewhere in the Midwest. Wren doesn’t have that luxury. Her family is near-broke, verbally abusive, and (as the beefaroni dinner indicates) miserably resigned to a life without imagination or pleasure. These visits home offer insight into why Wren lies so flagrantly about how Awesome & Cool her life is. She doesn’t have a solid foundation to back up her dreams, so she invents one.

With wealthy parents bankrolling her or an actively interested educator mentoring her in the right direction, I think Wren could have a fairly good shot making something of herself in the fashion industry. The outfits she designs for herself without any formal education or spending cash are impressively vivid & distinct, doing just as much to craft her falsely confident persona as any of her verbal deceits. No one’s around to open her mind to the notion that pursuing fashion as an artform is even a possibility, though, so she cooks up a much narrower approach to expressing herself artistically: hitching her wagon to potential upstarts in punk’s rock ‘n roll boys’ club. As prickly & exploitative as Wren can be, I really do feel sorry for her. Her delusions of grandeur come across to me as expressions of her insecurity in coming from such a financially & artistically bankrupt background, and it’s tragic how that defensive sense of pride continually isolates her even within her own community of weirdos & misfits. This is a young, artistically inventive (at least in the arenas of fashion & graphic design) person who should have the entire world open to her, but by the end can see no other possibility on how to survive other than giving up her dreams to pursue low-level sex work. I’m still glad the movie didn’t soften her caustic persona to make her an easily sympathetic person, though. It would’ve been a much less rewarding story if she wasn’t at least partly at fault for her own undoing.

Boomer, did anything about the costuming in Smithereens stand out to you as especially significant, whether as a tool for characterization or as an artistic achievement in its own right? I feel like D.I.Y. fashion design is a major aspect of this & every punk story, yet characters rarely directly comment on its merits as a form of personal expression or political resistance.

Boomer: To be honest, I had to go back and look at some screencaps from the movie to remind myself about Wren’s wardrobe (other than the pink fur jacket that she wears at the end while talking to Eric’s wife, implying an offscreen adventure in which Wren stalks, slays, and skins one of the “Mah Na Mah Na” Muppets). Looking back, I’m surprised that they didn’t leave more of an impression, but I have a different interpretation of the text here, and I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t change your opinion of the film. The first thing that we see, from the film’s earliest frames, is Wren stealing another woman’s sunglasses. She literally steals another woman’s style. Although I can’t argue with your assessment that Wren has a keen eye for graphic design, my inference is that this opening is the film’s thesis statement, that Wren is a scavenger, and one who isn’t particularly foresighted or original. Her theft of the glasses, not even from a store (like a true punk) but from a random woman and in broad daylight, conceptually establishes that Wren is a woman without much in the way of forethought or skill. The only thing she manages to plan ahead for is her unrealistic dream of running away with Eric to L.A., which immediately falls apart following the only successful step, amounting to little more than a comedically inept mugging that succeeds more as a result of dumb luck rather than skill. It doesn’t go well for her. We see, over and over again, that she can barely plan ahead to where she’s going to sleep on any given night, echoing her establishing character moment as a woman with little more going on in her mind that the bad slayer (this Slayer, not this one, or maybe them, too; I don’t know) philosophy of “want, take, have.” We know Wren is a mooch, and I get the impression that her closet is made up entirely of things she picked up from (or off of) others. Her style may be singular, but I don’t think that it’s original, at least not to Wren. I did notice that Paul’s clothes tended to fall apart, and I felt like that served as a nice counterpart to Wren’s practiced state of dishevelment. Paul wore actual holes in his grungy white t-shirt while living in a van, pursuing genuine self-knowledge, and making art (of admittedly dubious artistic merit); Wren’s damaged clothing is torn in strategic places in an aesthetic tied closely to a punk scene that’s left her miles behind, pursuing nothing other than respect by proxy. She also makes her own graphic posters of admitted artistic merit, but they’re of dubious artistic integrity.

This actually demonstrates that Paul’s really the only character with an arc. Wren learns nothing and doesn’t grow at all, except to become more desperate and willing to make more extreme choices, rejecting a boring but safe life and instead gambling on the empathy of a man who is demonstrably and utterly a narcissist, as Britnee noted above (who dreams of having a life size poster of themselves in their home?). Eric comes a hair’s breadth of twirling a little mustache; that’s how much of a sociopath he is. The first thing he did when he got to L.A. was probably tie some woman to railroad tracks, and yet Wren falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Not only is she a user, she’s so bad at that too that her game doesn’t even recognize game. Paul, by contrast, manages to realize that he’s got to get out of the situation, and does something about it that doesn’t rely on theft or a critically flawed ability to read people.

Britnee, I hate to give you a second hypothetical question in a row instead of a more material one, but I’m curious what you think these three characters would be doing now, in 2019? Where are they, and what are their lives like? Assuming that Wren didn’t meet the same kind of untimely and tragic demise that Susan Berman did, that is.

Britnee: I actually love hypothetical questions in regards to movies! I always like to imagine how the characters were brought up prior to when the film started and where they ended up once the film is over with.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think our main girl Wren made out all that well. New York City would eventually kick her ass, forcing her to move back to her hometown in New Jersey where she gets involved with the wrong crowd. She doesn’t have the tendency to surround herself with those who would support her and guide her in the right direction, and she goes above and beyond to get acceptance from terrible people. Also, considering the meth epidemic that exists in so many small towns in 2019, I wouldn’t doubt that Wren would get stuck in that hole (assuming her hometown in NJ isn’t a major city).

As for Eric, he’s fathered hundreds of children with women that he has abandoned and has no relationship with any of them. Like one of those deadbeat turds on Maury. He remained a narcissist that will continue to mooch off women until the day he dies.

Paul is the only major character in the film that seemed to learn from his mistakes, so he chose an easier path in life. In 2019, Paul is ready to retire and get his plaque and company watch from a boring office job that he’s dedicated his life to for too many years.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It would be criminal to conclude this discussion without mentioning how delightful it is to see two John Waters alums in the same non-Waters film. Polyester‘s Joni Ruth White is featured as Wren’s crotchety landlord and Dreamlanders regular Cookie Mueller pops up in a single-scene cameo as a scream queen in a gory sci-fi creature feature Wren watches on a date with Paul. Spotting any of Waters’s players outside the context of the Pope of Trash’s hyper-specific artificial environments always feels like encountering a unicorn in the wild, so I was ecstatic to have that same experience twice in the span of a single picture.

Boomer: Speaking of cameos, Law & Order alum Chris Noth is one of the prostitutes now living (or at least working out of) Paul’s old van at the end of the movie.

Britnee: I had no idea that Susan Berman was THE Susan Berman, a victim of murderer Robert Durst. The film All Good Things is based on Durst, and this movie was a Friday night fave of mine a few years ago. In fact, the character of Deborah Lehrman in that film (played by Lily Rabe) was based on Susan Berman.

Next month: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

Wild Rose (2019)

I’m not an especially avid fan of country music, so I’m not sure that Wild Rose ever had a chance to speak directly to my soul. I did, however, recognize the universal appeal of the genre when the aspiring country music singer in the film is asked why she loves country so much and she responds, “Because it’s three chords and the truth.” That’s basically the same explanation you’ll hear about the appeal of punk and all other stripped-down mutations of rock n’ roll, and it’s one this movie conveys surprisingly well despite country’s not-for-everyone cultural barriers (to the point where “three chords and the truth” is tattooed across its protagonist’s forearm). It needs to sell that universal appeal to the audience too, since its premise relies on it being believable that a young Scottish woman who’s never been to America is singularly obsessed with making it as a country musician in Nashville. Most of Wild Rose’s tension is in how those dreams of graduating from a local sensation at a Western-themed dive bar called Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry to the real-deal half a world away conflict with her means and obligations at home. It’s easy to get swept up in that kind of underdog story no matter how much personal investment you have in country music scene in particular.

The reason I sought out this minor indie drama despite my general disinterest in its milieu is that its star, Jessie Buckley, was incredible in last year’s criminally underseen thriller Beast. She’s just as endlessly watchable here as an unlikely country singer-songwriter pursuing a career in Americana all the way from Scotland, even though that thematic territory isn’t nearly as appealing to me personally as the Wuthering Heights-flavored crime novel mystery of Beast. Wild Rose is a sort of delayed-coming-of-age picture for Buckley, as she plays an immature twentysomething petty criminal who’d much rather get sloppy dunk & sing country tunes with strangers than spend a quiet afternoon engaging with her own children, whom she treats as a burden. She relies on her increasingly frustrated mother (Julie Walters) to tend to her obligations as she storms off like an unruly teen to play pretend rockstar in a cheesy country bar. A lot of the growing up she does in the film is in realizing that she can take an active role in pursuing a career as a country singer and be a decent person to her own kids. All she really needs is encouragement (and financial support) from her local community to push her in the right direction, as she starts her journey to self-realization as an ex-convict with every little to work with and an isolating sense of selfishness.

Wild Rose does occasionally dip into a maudlin kind of Sundance-friendly inspo-drama that I don’t always have the patience for, but it at least tempers its sentimentality with a relatable layer of crude vulgarity. Buckley cusses her way through the picture in a thick Scottish accent that cuts through what could easily feel like an artificial cliché if it were a PG drama staged in Nashville instead of the drunken end of Glasgow. Buckley’s not quite as mesmerizing here as she is in Beast, but that earlier film didn’t leave room for her to exhibit what made her a star to watch in Britain in the first place: her beautiful singing voice. Even as a country music agnostic, I was thoroughly won over by all her vocal contributions to the soundtrack. It was just all the other country tunes that left me cold, give or take a brief cameo from Kasey Musgraves. I cried in the exact moments when Buckley wanted me to (usually in her character’s interactions with her mother and kids) and my heart soared in her few moments of triumph (most notably in the performance of a song inexplicably co-written by Marky heckin’ Steenburgen of all people). That’s not too bad for a film with two layers of genre skepticism for me to fight past as a perennial big-city grump – country music and saccharine melodrama. Buckley is just that good, and I’ll apparently watch her in just about anything.

-Brandon Ledet

The Farewell (2019)

One of the things I struggle with most in my personal life (to the point where I bring it up weekly in therapy) is my compulsion to avoid conflict & unpleasant conversation, especially with my family. I’ll often spare other people’s feelings by keeping my own opinions on uncomfortable subjects quiet, which limits a lot of my interactions with family to very surface-level & artificially pleasant depths, even when I’m really upset. There’s a lot going on thematically in Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical family drama The Farewell – ranging from immigration culture clash and abstract ponderings on Identity to the very nature of Life & Death – but what really resonated with me personally is how extreme this divide between surface-level familial pleasantries vs. deep emotional anguish becomes as the film pushes on as if nothing’s wrong while the world crumbles around it. Smartly, a lot of this tension between secretive personal grief and forced-smiles small talk is played for morbid humor and a disorientingly surreal tone. When it does come to a point where feelings spill over and characters openly weep in “inappropriate” social settings, though, the cathartic release of that breakdown feels remarkably true to something I’ve often felt in my real life but have never seen expressed so directly on the big screen.

In this case, the secret kept to spare a family member’s feelings is a pretty major one. Awkwafina stars as Wang’s fictional avatar, a young writer who returns to China to visit her elderly grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), who is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. As is apparently custom in China, her family has decided to lie to their matriarch about her own cancer diagnosis, so that she can live out what little time she has left blissfully unaware of the doom hanging over her head. Her children, grandchildren, and extended family stage a sham wedding as an excuse to visit her one last time under happy circumstances without tipping her off that something is wrong, and most of the tension of the film derives from maintaining that celebratory surface while everyone is miserable with grief. This is a hyper-specific culture clash narrative where Awkwafina’s American upbringing prompts her to desire a genuine emotional display that her parents’ Chinese upbringing does not allow for. They believe they’re doing the grandmother a charitable service by shouldering all the worry & grief themselves, and the movie takes both sides of that argument dead seriously, even when laughing at the exponential absurdity of the situation. As with all hyper-specific human experiences, there’s still a universality to the situation as well, as we’ve all had to tell “good lies” to people we love to spare them grief, even if not as severe in scope as a cancer diagnosis.

Most of this movie’s charm relies on the adorable intergenerational rapport between Awkwafina & Zhao, even with such a devastating secret hanging over them. Whether in a darkly humorous exchange where the granddaughter is teased for being inexplicably gloomy or in a sweeter teasing when the grandmother exclaims, “Stupid child! Too loveable!,” their relationship is endlessly watchable, which makes it all the more devastating that it’s barreling towards such a definitive end. Wang also elevates the material as an exquisite stylist; she emphasizes the heightened emotions of the situation with a lush strings score, dives headfirst into the sensual reliefs & comforts of food as a grief-staver, and underlines the bewildering absurdity of living in a world of competing Truths (that the grandmother is drying and that everything is fine) by abstracting everyday Chinese environments as if they were surreal alien planetscapes. There’s a sequence in a wedding photography studio in particular that’s so continually disorienting that it might as well have been a dream, which is often how it feels to be hit with devastating personal news you haven’t been able to process—either publicly or internally. All this intricate detail in performance and direction adds up to an impressive tightrope balance between morbid humor and quiet emotional anguish – landing The Farewell in a curious space between Oscar Season crowd-pleaser & deceptively complex art film.

I do have a couple minor, spoilery complaints about last minute aesthetic choices that I believe robbed this film’s resolution of its full complex emotional potential by grounding it in a more pedestrian milieu of based-on-a-true-story dramas (or, in this case, “based on a true lie” dramedies). I was still crying despite that turbulent conclusion, though, so I guess those complaints can’t be all that important. Some people will even welcome them as much-needed tension relief, especially if they’ve followed this personal story since Wang first shared it on This American Life. More importantly, Wang herself apparently felt it necessary to include them in this fictionalized retelling of her own personal story, so their crowd-pleasing comforts are likely a version of self-therapy I have no real business questioning, especially since I found her auteurist decision-making so impeccable elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

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