Synopsis: In the wake of a high school student’s mysterious disappearance, a collective awakening seems to overcome the town’s teenage girls — gathering in force until it can no longer be contained.
Stars: Marika Engelhardt, Grace Smith, Ireon Roach, Kayla Carter, Tim Hopper, Kate Arrington, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith
Director: Jennifer Reeder
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: As I approach a milestone birthday in 2020, I’m wondering if I’m starting to turn into a grumpy old man. I see the signs all around me to suggest the transition is beginning. I get annoyed when whippersnappers play their music too loud on the train, wondering at the same time what happened to good tunes. No one has manners anymore, people leave their garbage anywhere they want and feel they are entitled to do what they want when they want to, regardless of anyone else in the room. There’s no respect for authority or leadership. Plus, I just really look forward to the bran muffin my work offers up every Friday. I’m one cardigan and a couple of belt loops away from being ready to go ice fishing with Walter Matthau.
Reading the synopsis for Knives and Skin, I found a great deal of promise. A modern noir mystery written and directed by feminist filmmaker Jennifer Reeder that would have its own voice could be just what this era of filmmaking needed. A genre dominated by males and male-appealing storylines was due for a little shake-up, why not start at the indie roots and work our way up into the mainstream? Sounds like a winner, right? I thought so too but watching the film is a different experience entirely and this blossoming grumpy old man wasn’t having it. Despite some intriguing interludes, a welcome all-inclusive vibe, and a keen visual eye, Reeder’s teen noir isn’t some revolutionary piece of cinema like I was hoping it would be.
Eschewing the hard-boiled grit of an East coast setting or the sinister sunny skies of the West coast scene, Knives and Skin centers on the residents of a small Midwestern township that could be called Anytown U.S.A. It’s here that Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing after being left in the middle of nowhere by school crush Andy (Ty Olwin) when she rebuffs his advances. Carolyn’s already slightly on the edge mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), teeters further on the brink when her daughter vanishes, resorting to wearing her clothes to feel closer to her child. Her friends think she’ll show up soon and aren’t too worried, though.
Lisa’s also the music teacher at the town’s high school and Reeder has stuffed the gymatorioum full of hyped up, highly emotional teens that struggle with the disappearance of a classmate at the same time their hormones are raging at a fever pitch. Juggling these kids as well as a healthy stable of adults showing up as predatory teachers and troubled parents presents the viewer with a lot of plotlines and perverse people to keep track of. While the town goes about their business, Reeder also presents Carolyn (or Carolyn’s lifeless body) to us at several points, blurring the lines of reality further so we aren’t sure if this is meant to be real, taken as a dream of the filmmaker, the dream of a character, or merely symbolic of something else entirely.
Bravo to a few performers here, namely Engelhardt, who are asked to go above and beyond for their performance. Most of the actors are entirely forgettable, hindered by clumsy, babbling brook-ish dialogue and some truly heinous line deliveries but there are several standouts. As an avant-garde student that catches the eye of a popular football star, Ireon Roach is the most interesting one of the lot and I longed to see her in a remake of Pretty in Pink, which is kinda the point Reeder is making. The parents/adults are the true duds here, each performing like this is their big Hollywood break. Every emotion is huge, each word of dialogue is barked out with eyes bulged to the back of the theater.
I’d read some critics kindly compare this film to the work of David Lynch and more power to them. I found this to be an extremely unpleasant movie on the whole, even considering there are some strong performances and there’s true technique involved in the production design and cinematography. It’s fine to create a work that has some characters audiences are repelled by but Reeder has found a way to make almost every person that shows up on screen so obnoxious and repulsive in their own way that for the first time in a long while I almost gave up on this entirely. If there’s truly one thing that saves the film from being a total waste, is Reeder’s inclusion of several ‘80s tunes sung by the school choir or as musical interludes, artfully edited. They’re hopelessly emo but well performed and they stuck with me much more than any one person did.
There’s clearly a strong voice in Reeder and I’m going to keep my eye on what the filmmaker does in the future – I’m hoping there’s more focus into the plot (oh, you forgot this was a mystery, didn’t you? So did I at times) and less on exposing the sordid side of a small town. What Reeder uncovers here isn’t anything new or exciting, nor is her delivery as audacious as it could have been. It’s less knives on skin and more nails on a chalkboard.