Friday, January 5, 2018

Quinn Shepard's BLAME proves a humane, if diffuse, look at high school misfits and meanies

The movie may begin as a relatively typical, if darker, Mean Girls look at high-school life. But hold on. By its finale, BLAME, the first full-length endeavor as writer/director by Quinn Shepard (who also stars in the leading female role) stands out from the pack in its ability to find some complexity in both its protagonists and antagonists, as well as in the sometimes fantasy/dream-like quality it brings to occasional scenes along with a welcome refusal to dot every "i" and cross all the "t"s. This subtlety, if you will call it that, also arrives with some possible drawbacks, as some viewers may want a bit more explanation regarding "Did they or didn't they?" and a climax that suggests but does not hammer home its point.

Ms Shepard (above and on poster, left) plays Abigail, a high schooler who, as we learn upfront, has had some problems earlier but is now back in class. Some of her nastier classmates refer to her as Sybil (though one wonders how they even know of a book, along with its popular TV movie versions, as old as that one is).

Abigail's main tormentor is Melissa (played by Nadia Alexander, above), a girl who, as we eventually learn, has her own major problems. When their pregnant drama teacher must take a maternity leave, into class comes a hunky new substitute teacher named Jeremy (the always fine Chris Messina, below), who immediately replaces their production of The Glass Menagerie with The Crucible -- and then, to Melissa's chagrin, casts Abigail in the leading role.

Tempers flare and nastiness ensues, yet each of these three lead characters have their own deep problems to work through, and they use each other to do this -- with results both good and bad. As a fledgling filmmaker, Ms Shepard proves generally adept at both dialog and mise en scene, though her pacing is a bit slow and the film, even at 100 minutes, could either be a bit shorter or explore more within its time constraint.

Among the supporting cast, Tate Donovan (above), as Melissa's step-father, and Marcia DeBonis, as a school administrator, stand out. But the grunt work is handled by the three leads. Ms Shepard proves unsettlingly odd (just how problemed is she?), and Ms Alexander is properly sexy/ugly while setting us up for a little surprise or two. But it is Mr. Messina who makes the film work as well as it does.

His character, weak but willing, and with as many unresolved and maybe even unexamined problems as our two girls, lets things get just far enough out of hand to be maybe culpable, too. I don't know that there is another American actor working today who can smoulder as well as Messina (and without seeming to do a damned thing but just be there). Innately sexy, highly intelligent, and able to consistently make the right acting choices, he's always a pleasure to view. He's worked a lot over his 20-year career, and maybe one of these days, he's going to get the right, major role in a movie that will at last put this guy on the "star" map. Let's hope.

Meanwhile, Blame -- a nicely appropriate title of which there is plenty to go around -- is overall a pretty good addition to the sub-genre of high school angst. From Samuel Goldwyn Films, it opens today, Friday, January 5, in New York City at the Village East Cinema, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3, and simultaneously around the country via VOD.

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