Sunday, July 26, 2015


Abbie and Lydia have a bond deep and strong. It withstands the worst bickering that adolescent power can muster. It withstands Abbie's treacherous deflowering in the back of a car and her subsequent pregnancy. And then it withstands her death as Lydia plunges into an emotional chaos as she makes her unguided way through grief. As Abbie's last days were broken by increasingly serious fainting spells, Lydia is beset by her own. Soon this spreads throughout the school as the other girls begin falling, culminating in a mass faint at assembly. Is it hysteria, a neurological plague, a weird protest? This film's strength and weakness lies in its evasion of the answer.

It's a strength because it allows the film to explore by posing questions. Why is that happening? Is it related to this? Is there something significant about the relationship? We are invited to draw our conclusions from a mass of information supported by strong performances and a characterful aesthetic. Plot is kept necessarily slight to facilitate this and you will find yourself continuing to make connections after the credits have rolled.

It's a weakness because all that depends too much on how much empathy you want to shell out to the characters. The lead performances are strong but the best played shallow sketches will only clarify the lack of depth. Do we need better developed characters if the piece is so thematically driven? Well, we do when it declares itself to be about bonding, empathy, various forms of violation and repression and their effects. As with the quirk of films like A Fistful of Flies or What's Eating Gilbert Grape or anything by Wes Anderson the difficulty connecting between the people on screen and the ones watching them makes what might be an engaging flow into a clod-hop over a scrapbook.

And you want quirk? Lydia has a twitching eyelid. When I first noticed it I thought it was a sign of her exerting control over the other girls. But it's really kind of nothing. Her brother has moments when his eyes look a little splayed but again nothing. Nothing substantial, at any rate though it's not that hard to impute meaning to those traits they come across as spontaneous inspirations of indulged actors. The brother introduces himself as Kenneth-not-Ken. He is pollinating wildly, roaming the ward of fainting victims spreading charm spoors. He recognises the boundary drawn at his sister but that barrier doesn't seem to bother either of them. Their mother, working from home as the neighbourhood hairstylist, hasn't left the house in years though she dresses and makes up as though she's never at home. You got quirk.

So did I like it at all? Well, Masie Williams provides a solid centre as Lydia, making the writing she has to work with less grating through her obvious and effortless conviction. Greta Scacchi's knotty oak Mrs Mantel allows a warmth to the dessicated bitterness by which her character might have otherwise been wholly composed. Director Morley has a fondness for near subliminal shock cuts but skill enough to use them to inform rather than distract. She plays fair, also, by keeping the initial restlessness of the narrative style under control, making it clear that we shouldn't be expecting too much plot. There is a pleasing ambiguity to the depiction of the falling itself whereby it looks genuine in this case but completely contrived in that one. The score is a pleasing mix of folky freshness and electronica which didn't let the film down once (that's not faint praise; listen to the next blockbuster you go to).

But then there are so many threads that are allowed to bend beyond recognition and either wobble unevenly or more simply fade from view. Forced moments like the older teachers' private loosening chat or the atrocity straight out of a Greek Tragedy primer in the final act jar rather than deepen and too often being taken out of the picture this way results in exposure of the void between the patches and fragments that make it up. These pieces are chosen with scholarship and taste (If, The Devils, Picnic at Hanging Rock etc.) and placed with great intention but, I fear, too little consequence.

I did continue making connections on the walk home from the cinema and quite happily found many that I hadn't consciously made while watching. This is a pleasant effect and I have no objection to a film that manipulates me into it. However, this comes at a cost of the thought developing an apologetic rather than participatory tone. I don't wish to damn any film for being different and so boldly itself but in this case my praise can only be ... faint.

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