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Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: Felt

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A young person, having experienced great trauma, responds by creating a special suit, a costume that can shield her from reliving that violence - and allow her to fight back when she sees that evil in the world. I'm not talking about the newest blockbuster from Marvel or DC, of course - the feminine pronouns should have tipped you off there - but Felt, the new indie film from Toad Road director Jason Banker and artist Amy Everson. And while mainstream superhero movies are feeling increasingly samey (even to hardcore comics nuts like us), the fringes of indie films are borrowing their iconography and basic ideas in some fascinating ways.

In Felt, artist Amy Everson debuts as Amy, an artist who underwent an unspecified (but probably sexual) trauma in the semi-recent past, and who has retreated almost entirely into her art. Her friends find her new distance and dark sense of humor funny, at first, while guys find her cold and humorless. Her only retreat is a pair of suits she made that give her some control over her body. But then she meets Kenny (Kentucker Audley), a sensitive man with an interest in art and a willingness to take things slowly. Amy comes out of her shell, but is Kentucker all he's cracked up to be? And if he isn't, will the already-bent Amy be able to handle the heartbreak?

I want to say two things up front. First: I really liked this movie. Second: Even for me, Felt isn't wholly satisfying. I know a lot of people react almost viscerally against mumblecore aesthetics, which Felt has in spades, and while I'm not typically one of them, I still found some frustration with the sheer length it went to avoid conventional storytelling for much of its runtime. The often-abrupt edits and handheld camerawork, the meandering pace that finds the 'plot', as it is, failing to start until about 35 minutes in to an 80 minute movie - the hallmarks of the style are all there. And the ending is far too abrupt given the build-up, a powerful act that could have been played out in more interesting ways if Banker and Everson had as much patience with the bleakness as they did with the character work. They went for the sucker punch over a set piece, which is unfortunate, because I think the two of them could have said more with the conceit if they'd stuck with it. As-is, Felt is both short and, it sometimes feels, a bit draggy.

But Felt has an intimacy that borders on documentary, and co-writer/star Amy Everson, whose life and art inform much of the story, is responsible for an awful lot of that. Though this is her first professional acting role, she gives a nervy, jittery performance that alternated confidently between making me laugh and making me intensely uncomfortable. It's a portrait of a wounded soul struggling to find a way to make her outer life just a little bit less like the nightmares that consume her inner life, and when I look back at the film's slowest, most seemingly aimless moments, I remember them with fascination thanks to her work. I remember a bizarre line reading from Everson that imbued a casual line with off-kilter menace, or the gangly physicality she finds in her suits. It's subtle character work, both from Everson and from the film itself, and it doesn't just save the film; it transcends its problems.

Superheroes tend to be, quite nakedly, power fantasies. It's how they got their start, how they found popularity with kids, and how they exploded in our modern film culture. They can be thoughtful, artistic power fantasies, of course, and many are, but Felt feels unique in the way it ties gender dynamics and rape culture to those fantasies, the way it plays with the meaning of bodies. For all the issues I have with Felt, ultimately, its thoughtful script, haunting direction, and wounded central performance combine to make a memorable, engaging film.

It's meandering, sure. But it's disturbing and gorgeous, too, and it lingers somewhere deep in your gut long after its over. 

Felt made the film festival rounds earlier this year, and is currently available for download on iTunes or streaming on services like Amazon Instant. Written by Amy Everson and Jason Banker and directed by Jason Banker, Felt stars Amy Everson and Kentucker Audley.
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