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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Review: BLAME Is An Impressive Debut for Some Fresh Voices

Abigail (Quinn Shephard) is having a rough time in high school. Last year, an incident at school sent her home -- and got her labeled a psycho by her cruel classmates, particularly vile bully Melissa (Nadia Alexander) and the two prankster bros over whom she holds court. But now, she finally has something worth looking forward to in school, as the substitute drama teacher, Jeremy (Chris Messina), quickly realizes that she's a talented, if troubled, young woman relentlessly hounded by classmates. But Melissa, along with budding accomplice Sophie (Sarah Mezzanotte), ramps up the abuse as she notices Jeremy's special interest in Abigail. As the school performance of The Crucible draws near, Melissa and Sophie try to find ways to sabotage the budding relationship, even as Jeremy realizes that his bond with his student may be getting a bit too close.

At times, Blame feels a bit like a season of TV condensed into a film. Two characters who are essential to the film's plot, Sophie (Mezzanotte) and Ellie (Tessa Albertson), each have somewhat minor arcs here, but they are largely left unresolved as the film's bigger thematic struggles come into play. And beneath them are Eric (Luke Slattery) and TJ (Owen Campbell), the bros constantly trying to get in Melissa's pants while also backing up her schemes, who often give us some excellent characterization for Melissa, but end up feeling like two characters who seem completely dumped by the story after one subplot comes to a rather abrupt ending. Even Jeremy (Chris Messina), the substitute teacher whose presence upends the classroom's social order, gets a minor at-home subplot that never feels even remotely earned the way even the faultiest of the high school drama does. In a way, it feels like Shephard just included too much in the story, trying to give every character just enough detail to feel fully formed and lived-in but overshooting considerably and giving them frustratingly incomplete fragments of their own stories.

That said, the core of Blame's script is, by and large, fantastic. This story delves into some profoundly thorny areas, and it takes a writer of considerable talent to navigate the film's trickiest issues intelligently. Blame excels in this. Most stories with a teacher/student relationship, even an implied one, seem to be fantasies. As recently as last year's Riverdale, we've seen how (mostly male) writers and directors struggle to understand issues of power and consent in some pretty profound ways, idealizing the fantasy of youth without considering its vulnerability. Shephard understands a lot behind the impetus of that fantasy - from both points of view - while refusing to shy away from the immense damage of its reality. In many ways, this helps set Blame aside from many of its counterparts, as its nuance helps make sure it feels like a vital, breathing story rather than a blunt issues drama or a problematic sexual fantasy.

Blame's nuanced ideas live and die on the strength of the film's performances, and I'm glad to say they were uniformly up to the task. Shephard herself, in one of the film's leading roles, is excellent as the offbeat, fairly intense Abigail. Abigail seems uncomfortable with the world around her, feeling much more at home when she can be in someone else's skin, and that Shephard plays that chameleon vulnerability well. Sarah Mezzanotte is impeccably frustrating as a girl pulled between a childhood friend urging her to do the right thing and her more exciting new friends who are pushing her into some questionable behavior. Slattery and Campbell are immensely unlikable, the kind of vacuous high school bros we all knew and quietly hated, but they play up the casual cruelty and mood swings excellently. And Chris Messina has an incredibly complex role as a high school teacher who we need to empathize with even as he is tempted to do something fairly heinous.

I also want to single out Nadia Alexander. Melissa is a difficult role, a hellion and a bully, but one with charisma -- and one, ultimately, we come to understand. There's a casually cruel streak to her performance that stands out, but she's not an overt monster like many of the classic film bullies. Blame spends a fair amount of time from her point-of-view, in her head, and that gives us an opportunity to see some of the moments that really shape her. Melissa is a nuanced character, a bully and a punk who yearns for approval however she can get it, and Alexander absolutely nails it, her biggest moments tempered by our rare glimpses of her in moments of privacy and uncertainty. For a young TV performer, this was an astonishing breakout performance in a film absolutely full of strong actresses. I hope we see a lot more of Alexander, and of the whole cast of Blame, in the years to come.

Blame is a tragic drama about abuse, bullying, and fantasy. It's a remarkably timely movie, coming out in the midst of a nation-spanning movement to combat sexual abuse and harassment. While the script drags at times and the film potentially lingers a bit too long on subplots that ultimately peter out, ultimately, Shephard's nuanced character work and strong direction go well with a number of incredibly strong performances to make a debut film worth watching. Shephard is clearly an insightful and intelligent young writer/director, and Blame is a powerful film that will introduce viewers to some incredible up-and-coming talent.

Blame is out now for rent and purchase on digital streaming sites like Amazon Instant Video and Google Play. Written and directed by Quinn Shephard, Blame stars Quinn Shephard, Nadia Alexander, and Chris Messina.
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