Knives And Skin


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Charlotte does things her own way in Knives And Skin
"This is a world of ballgowns, sequins and lace...but none of that diminishes the ability of its heroes to think clearly or take charge of their own fates." | Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

The death of a teenage girl in a small US town has long been a focal point for cultural obsessions which pretend to be caring or pretend to be sexual. It would seem to be at least as much about the recognition that there's something deeply broken about gendered interaction in Western society and yet we've never consistently had the will to fix it. The whole Clutter family was murdered in Holcomb in 1959 yet it's Nancy whose memory has endured. When Hazel Drew disappeared in Sand lake in 1908, the public fascination with her death led to her reincarnation in fiction as Laura Palmer, still magnetic over a century later. Underscoring this is the greater tragedy; our society accords very little worth to teenage girls when they're alive.

In her majorette uniform with its decorative hat and epaulettes, Carolyn (Raven Whitley) cuts a striking figure. It's natural that people would look at her, and that she would catch the eye of a boy like Andy (Ty Olwin) - yet she still has the not unreasonable expectation that he'll realise she's a person. To be fair, as lawyers would doubtless say in his defence, he didn't actually rape her and as far as we know he didn't murder her. He just dumped her by the lake after she told him to keep his hands to himself. No sex, no ride home, and what happens to her afterwards is not his problem. Until she doesn't come home. Then, suddenly, everybody was always her best friend and he's afraid of what will happen if his behaviour is exposed.

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Jennifer Reeder gives him his due: she doesn't let him take up space in her film. Instead we focus on three girls with a little more self-awareness: his sister sister Joanna (Grace Smith) and her friends Laurel (Kayla Carter) and Charlotte (Ireon Roach), all watching and sharing their thoughts as the community around them disintegrates. They're in a band together. Charlotte dresses like a rock star all the time - Kate Grube's costume design work throughout the film is spectacular. Joanna sells used underwear to the school principal. Laurel's unhappy, pregnant mother is having an affair with an unemployed clown. Together they try to process what has happen whilst navigating all the usual hazards of growing up, exploring their sexuality and telling boys like Andy where to go. The result is like a John Hughes film with the ugly parts acknowledged and nobody looking the other way.

Whereas teenage girls are generally represented in film - even affectionately - as a source of chaos, in this disjointed world their wisdom and wit come to the fore. Christopher Rejano's imagery is saturated with feminine colour, layers of pink and purple and cherry red; this is a world of ballgowns, sequins and lace, with a sweeping synth soundtrack that's interspersed with choral versions of New Romantic hits, but none of that diminishes the ability of its heroes to think clearly or take charge of their own fates. Though caught in that awkward space between overprotective parents and a frequently hostile world, they already have a clear sense of who they are. This is vital not only to their own stories but to a film that sometimes overdoes its quirkiness elsewhere. Reeder's characters have been compared to those of David Lynch; sometimes they more closely resemble the work of Wes Anderson, but it is possible to overdose on them, and the sheer number of oddities packed into this dreamlike tale may be too much for some viewers.

Deliberately avoiding the dramatic denouement that the genre usually dictates, Knives And Skin is one of the boldest selections at this year's Fantasia International Film Festival. It teases with horror trappings but its core is human drama, the focus very much on life.

Reviewed on: 20 Jul 2019
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Trouble brews in small town America after the disappearance of a teenager.

Director: Jennifer Reeder

Writer: Jennifer Reeder

Starring: Kate Arrington, Tony Fitzpatrick, Tim Hopper, Marika Engelhardt, James Vincent Meredith, Robert T. Cunningham, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Ty Olwin, Raven Whitley, Audrey Francis, Grace Etzkorn, Genevieve Venjohnson, Ireon Roach, Kayla Carter, Haley Bolithon

Year: 2019

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: US

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