Synopsis: When Sam decides to drop the charges against her rapist, her friends and siblings gather to stage a Thanksgiving intervention.
Stars: Jenny Lester, Juliana Jurenas, Britt Michael Gordon, Peter Evangelista, Paige Berkovitz, Jarielle Whitney, Christopher Mychael Watson, Lucas Calzada, Vaishnavi Sharma
Director: Amy Northup
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Being inundated with procedural television and slickly written courtroom dramas, we’re used to seeing someone traumatized by violence have their day in court. They meet their victimizer face to face, say the right thing, feel empowered, and march out of the courtroom just like they came in: with their head held high and their dignity intact. That’s one way to portray this journey for audiences that demand resolution and happy endings…but it’s almost always never entirely accurate. The process of prosecuting a person accused of a crime against another is a scary proposition, made even more terrifying when you have to relive a moment of trauma over and over again. It’s one of the central themes of the new film What She Said, available on streaming and VOD.
It’s understandable why Sam (Jenny Lester) is having second thoughts about testifying against the man that raped her and is considering dropping the charges against him. That way, she would avoid having to face him in court and be subject to the ridicule and questioning that usually comes with rape victims by defense attorneys and those unwilling to believe someone could commit that kind of heinous crime against another. With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, she’s decided to drop out of the family gatherings and Friendsgiving plans, opting instead for a weekend alone with her thoughts at a remote cabin.
That’s where Sam’s brother Eli (Britt Michael Gordon) shows up unannounced at the beginning of What She Said, confronting her about the decision and asking her to reconsider. Why not take the weekend to think it over because if she doesn’t do something about it, what about the next person it happens to? The next day, Sam is surprised to see Eli has invited a few more of their friends and their significant others up to celebrate the holiday and offer additional support. This pseudo-intervention doesn’t go well at first, giving Sam more of a reason to withdraw, but she’s eventually coaxed into spending time with her friends and brother over the next few days, time that’s spent discovering and rediscovering bonds that have held strong over time. As could be expected, newcomers to the group find it hard to relate to the old friends, and Sam’s contentious relationship with her sister-in-law Harper, (Juliana Jurenas), reaches a boiling point before the wishbone on the turkey has time to dry completely.
Written by star Lester and directed by Amy Northup, the film feels like it’s broken up into three acts. The first two acts take place over the weekend at the cabin and the shorter third act plays almost like an epilogue. For spoilers’ sake I won’t reveal what it is but it has some powerful, unsentimental, examples of speechifying that actually, for once, work without coming across as preachy. As a writer, Lester shows a talent for creating realistic dialogue that pushes narrative forward and as an actress she convincingly conveys the emotions of her words without letting it get too melodramatic. The film is dotted with a handful of fine supporting performances as well. Jurenas and Gordon are standouts as Sam’s main foe and brother, two people that think they are supporting her more than they actually are. Both are tricky roles to achieve in their goals without coming off as antagonists…but Lester takes care of them at the outset with dialogue, and they fill in the rest with considerate acting.
It’s become a bit of a mission of mine to round up holiday movies that aren’t totally “holiday movies” and I have to say that over time I’ve found Thanksgiving is a tough nut to crack. Being so close to Christmas, the films often share a number of themes so the crossover potential is high – that’s why finding a title like What She Said can be a pleasant surprise and for reasons that far exceed it’s thematic nature. It may delve into an overly talky middle section that starts to feel like scenes from an uninspired ‘90s indie feature (and thankfully pulls back from an ill-advised romantic coupling that feels out of place), but it quickly shakes off those dreary exchanges for some enlightening back and forth about right and wrong, should and shouldn’ts, men and women, and why we need to listen more when people are telling us what they are feeling.