Knives and Skin, the fourth feature from writer-director Jennifer Reeder, features a rendition of “Kids in America” that recalls the CW’s mega-hit teen show Riverdale (though it’s, thankfully, far less cringe-worthy). There, however, the comparisons end. This is a weirdly paced, defiantly feminine, and very teenage tale of loss and grief that’s as difficult to pin down as Veronica’s motivations for opening a speakeasy in the basement of Pop’s. It’s not something actual teenagers will rush to see, but you kind of wish they would.
Opening with a disconcerting shot of a woman brandishing a knife — still shocking in itself — the film wrong-foots us from the outset, initially seeming to be the tale of a missing girl, Carolyn Harper, when really it’s about everything that happens in the aftermath of her disappearance. To that end, we don’t learn a great deal about Carolyn, but the loss of this young woman is keenly felt, both by her classmates (“I ignored her, just like everybody else”) and her mother, who’s so distraught she wears her daughter’s dress to work.
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Carolyn’s mother is so desperate to be close to her, in fact, that she kisses her sort-of boyfriend, who was actually the last person to have seen Carolyn and who may have more to do with her disappearance than he’s letting on. As time drags on, truly beautiful shots of Carolyn’s body lying in the grass, blood disappearing on rocks, and even an ice cream cone melting, establish how she’s gradually slipping from everybody’s memory. And yet, the whole town is falling apart, particularly as her friends worry aloud that, “When you’re gone, people go through your stuff” (a genuinely terrifying prospect).
Knives and Skin boasts a refreshingly diverse cast, which knowingly reflects the makeup of today’s high school students. Discussions are frank, whether the kids are discussing if anybody actually likes dick or confronting their class-based differences. All of the adult characters are complete messes, so it’s up to the teens to behave like grown-ups. Their wit is caustic, like Heathers, but their depth is equally apparent. They, like most teenagers, yearn for a life outside of their small-town bubble.
Knives and Skin is offbeat, odd, and often overwrought. It’s a teenage story, told with the dramatics of a teenager, which fits the more outlandish moments, some of which work better than others. The school choir singing “Blue Monday,” for instance, feels a little too on the nose, but the names of famous women lovingly sewn onto one character’s T-shirts fits the material perfectly. Although the catalyst for the story is Carolyn’s disappearance, the film isn’t really about her. In fact, we don’t really get to know Carolyn at all. She’s a cipher, but a beautiful one.
Still, this is a distinctly, and very defiantly, female movie through and through. It’s feminine and delicate, bathed in pink light, and the vaginal focus is strong throughout (a risky decision that doesn’t always translate). However, the movie is more impressive for what it’s trying to do rather than what it actually manages to achieve. There’s an awful lot to love about Knives and Skin, from the performances of its mostly young, unknown cast, to the gorgeous cinematography and the sharp focus on a very teenage world, but it doesn’t necessarily coalesce.
The film it most calls to mind, for me, is Mitzi Peirone’s similarly impenetrable Braid, which was also delicate, fiercely feminine, stunning to look at, and often kind of difficult to understand. Neither is an easy watch, but that’s arguably the point. Too often, we’re served up the same male-focused dross we’ve seen a million times over and we eat it up like seals eager for more fish. It’s refreshing to see something different, something that defies easy classification.
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Knives and Skin won’t be for everyone but those who do seek it out will be richly rewarded by a strange, moody, and astute study of the effects of grief on a community that sticks with you long after the credits roll. This isn’t an easy film to compartmentalize but such is its bizarre power. Like Carolyn Harper herself, its presence hangs in the air like perfume long after it’s gone.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Jennifer Reeder
Writer(s): Jennifer Reeder
Stars: Kate Arrington, Marika Engelhardt, Tim Hopper, Tony Fitzpatrick
Release date: TBC
Studio/Production Company: Newby’s Chicago Film Project
Run Time: 111 minutes
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