Have you ever decided to visit your hometown in hopes of finding some closure and a little bit of comfort from the familiar locations and store fronts?...
...Then, upon arrival, you discover that everything is worse than you remembered and when you leave you only feel confused and disappointed? The protagonist of writer/director Chad Faust’s (The 4400) newest film, Girl, must face off against this odd mix of emotions when she returns to her childhood home, with a little bit of torture and murder thrown in.
The protagonist of Girl is a girl named Girl played by Bella Thorne (The Babysitter and MTV’s Scream). Girl learns from Mama (It: Chapter 1’s Elizabeth Saunders) that her estranged father (John Clifford Talbot) sent a letter to Mama threatening to kill her. Despite Mama’s protestations, Girl heads to her childhood home to kill Daddy. This simple premise is starkly and efficiently presented within the first three minutes of the film and, upon realizing what we were in for, I was enthralled. Disappointingly, the film does not live up to its initial promise and some creative decisions work against the film’s best interest. Still, it is a thrilling experience that no horror fan should miss.
With Girl, writer/director/co-star Chad Faust creates a Winter’s Bone adjacent tale of midwestern crime, familial secrets, and revenge. While the world of this film and its themes are handled well, the dialog is heavy-handed, and the plot is repetitive and unfocused. Despite its shortcomings, however, the film is able to triumph in the same ways as its flawed protagonist.
The collapsed town in which Girl takes place is hauntingly shot and the few interiors we see are suitably creepy and decrepit. Visiting with the few ancillary characters who haunt the only operating business in town (a bar) we are able to get just the right amount of context and backstory for the backwoods area. We learn from the bartender that a pair of brothers are the last line of a family that has been destroying the community. One might assume industrial automation, substance abuse, and the rise of big box stores would be to blame for the death of the American Small Town, but I suppose two dudes could also be responsible. These hints and suggestions perfectly set the tone and give just enough information for viewers to understand the world and the story.
Things start to go wrong when the deeper meaning of the film gets over-explained. Right at the end of the first act, Girl finds Daddy’s dead body in his garage. In this moment, Thorne adequately conveys Girl’s anger that her vengeance has been stolen, her grief that her father is dead before she could talk to him, and her resolve to learn who else had reason enough to kill him. Thorne’s performance says it all, but Faust does not seem to trust the audience to understand why Girl would be interested in finding out who killed her father. Therefore, she is shown addressing her father’s body and explaining everything she is feeling. In a moment where the audience should be feeling Girl’s emotions, we are instead saying to the screen, “Yeah, I know you’re sad and want to do something about this, why are you saying it out loud?”
This problem of not trusting the audience becomes destructive to the film when a character arrives who happens to be the only person whose name is not taken from their profession or their relationship to Girl. Aptly named Charmer (Faust), characters explain, talks a lot (monologuing is a more accurate description). This could be fun and amusing except that we are given to believe that not only is he charming and seductive, he’s also the only character allowed to openly state the themes of the film. It all seems too much for one character to be the coolest, cleverest, most high-minded guy in town. Additionally, when Charmer directly explains the film’s theme, I couldn’t help but think, “You were doing a great job showing. Why are you now telling?”
Much of Girl’s enjoyability comes from some fantastic casting. Bella Thorne is properly on edge and dangerous throughout. While she is the only character to affect a generic southern/Midwest accent, her overall performance is perfect for the film. When her always-slightly-drunk character steps into a room with an axe in her hand and an angry look on her face, you believe she’s going to fuck some shit up. She’s a messed up and violent character in a messed up and violent world and we love her for it. Mickey Rourke is similarly well cast as the menacing Sheriff. Rourke’s gift is his ability to imbue his characters with a life and personality that is partially his own. When Sheriff is threatening Girl or being more charming than Charmer, we get the sense that Rourke is offering us a part of himself.
Girl is an action thriller that asks us to look at ourselves and our connection to the past. When Girl goes on her journey for revenge, we soon learn its true meaning: a painful quest for closure. Following Girl, viewers become aware that she isn’t looking for a violent end. Rather, she is searching for an understanding of why she had been denied the life she wanted. And, while Girl doesn’t realize it, the audience understands that whatever explanation there is, it won’t make her feel any different. These heady themes work well within the film and the lingering shots of small-town America’s decay allow audiences to contemplate the nature of Girl’s quest. Watching this film, one can’t help but realize that Girl’s yearning for violence is really a misguided search for a past that never actually existed.
Girl comes to theaters November 20th and VOD from Screen Media November 24th.
By Mark Gonzales