Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Noelle's transformation from mouse to maniac is also hard to swallow, even with Eastwood's hard sell."

Natalie Leite's M.F.A. is timely in terms of its subject - campus rape. Student sexual assaults and the leniency often shown to the perpetrators have made headlines around the globe, with the Guardian reporting it at epidemic levels earlier this year, while in the US, RAINN suggests almost a quarter of female students have been subject to rape or assault.

Initally, she and screenwriter Leah McKendrick treat the subject with a clear gaze, introducing us to anxious art student Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), who lacks confidence both in herself and her work. When class charmer Luke (Peter Vack) asks her to a party, she steels herself and goes along, little realising that she is about to be assaulted. Leite handles the rape scene very well, showing the way in which fear often stops a victim from fighting back - one of the many lines of dubious 'defence' often aired in court, along with accusing the victim of provocative dress, being drunk etc. If the attack is horrible, then the cult of silence quickly seen to grow around it is even worse. Attempts to tell the authorities are met with disinterest and accusations, while Noelle's best friend Skye (McKendrick) suggests she just needs to forget about that "one shitty night". An unfortunate accident when she attempts to confront her attacker, however, leads to a spiral of violent vengeance.

As Noelle becomes increasingly bent on brutality, the film starts to lose its way. While the feminist intention is clear, the idea that either being raped, becoming a serial killer or a combination of both improves her art - and leads to her wanting to paint naked - is egregious. The film is torn between the interesting social drama it began as and formulaic genre vengeance. Eastwood represents the movie's high-point, her committed performance keeping us with Noelle, but the narrative is less concentrated. Aside from the scenes showing Eastwood alone, the action is stagey - such as a moment when a door swings open to reveal a horrified woman or the way in which a crowd of students veer away from Noelle as she walks past, as though they can 'sense' she has a problem despite no outward indications of that. Her own transformation from mouse to maniac is also hard to swallow, even with Eastwood's hard sell.

Scenes involving both students critiquing one another's art and a group trying to combat campus rape are also badly handled, while it may be true that some of these latter groupings lack teeth, the suggestion they would segue from assault to nail varnish while barely drawing breath is unlikely and oddly sneering for a film that purports to be feminist.

The editing is also choppy and the chief police officer (Clifton Collins Jr in a wafer-thin role) appears to sprout a beard between scenes. In terms of style, the colour scheme is 80s Michael Mann - a very fashionable choice among younger directors at the moment - while the scoring from Sonya Belousova is relentlessly breathless. There are moments of what might have been if Leite and McKendrick had played it straight, perhaps something for them to consider when working on future projects.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2017
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A woman who is raped goes on a rampage of vengeance.

Director: Natalia Leite

Writer: Leah McKendrick

Starring: Francesca Eastwood, Leah McKendrick, Clifton Collins Jr, Peter Vack

Year: 2017

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: US

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