Director: Quinn Shephard
Cast: Quinn Shephard, Nadia Alexander, Chris Messina, Sarah Mezzanotte, Tessa Albertson, Luke Slattery, Owen Campbell, Tate Donovan, Trieste Kelly Dunn
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 1/5/18 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 4, 2018
The central character of Blame is a mystery. Actually, the big mystery is which of these characters is the central character. The movie is set in a high school in the present day. One of the possible central characters is a teenage girl who left school after an "incident" in psychology class at some point during the previous school year. She's returning, although mostly because of pressure from her parents. The other candidate is another teen girl who seems to live alone with her stepfather. She acts like the school bully, although it's clear that her behavior comes from a place of deep insecurity.
The title of writer/director Quinn Shephard's movie suggests that something or someone is at fault for what happened to the returning girl and why the bullying girl acts the way she does. That the movie never arrives at a straightforward answer is somewhat refreshing, although its hesitation also seems to be a result of a dearth of information. To be fair, there's something of an answer for the bully's behavior, although it arrives in the final minutes and seems to come from nowhere. As for the girl who had to leave school, she remains an unknown from beginning to end.
We suppose that Abigail (Shephard) is the central character here, if only because the story begins with her and because everything that happens is the result of her actions or rumors about her. What we know is that she's a bit of a chameleon—a trait that makes her easy to categorize but difficult to truly understand. At the start, she has a pile of books in her bedroom. One is a copy of Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie.
We also note that Abigail dresses fairly conservatively as she prepares to return to school, and for further evidence, she's carrying around a glass figurine of a unicorn. She has, to an extent, modeled herself after the quiet and wounded Laura from the play. In class, she has one of the character's monologues memorized, and another student notes that Abigail walks with a limp—just like Laura.
Another book in her collection suggests what might have happened in the psychology class: a copy of Flora Rheta Schreiber's Sybil. Does Abigail suffer from dissociative identity disorder, like the central figure of that book, or has she modeled herself after the eponymous figure? There are no answers here, because everyone in school only whispers about Abigail and Abigail shuts down any conversation about the event before it goes anywhere.
We learn much more about Melissa (Nadia Alexander), the gossipy and bullying teen who appears to have made it her personal mission to ensure that Abigail's return to school is terrible. Abigail is an easy target, given her history and her quiet demeanor.
The turning point from everyday insults and gossip to intentional, conspiratorial sabotage comes when the substitute drama teacher Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina) chooses Abigail for the namesake role in a showcase of scenes from Arthur Miller's The Crucible over Melissa. Melissa takes it as a personal insult, an affirmation that there's something about her that makes people dismiss her, and a reason to destroy Abigail's already difficult life.
This might sound a bit like a soap opera, especially when one takes into consideration that Jeremy and Abigail spend a lot of extracurricular time together. Shepard, showing a deftly compassionate hand in her feature directorial debut, doesn't let the sensationalistic elements of this story get out of hand. There's plenty of it, too: the possibility of a teacher-student affair, the question of Abigail's mental state, an assortment of emotional and sexual betrayals amongst friends, and Melissa's scheme to ruin Abigail. One of the reasons for the movie's uncertainty regarding its central figure is because Shepard's screenplay wants us to see and understand these characters—as much as they're willing to be seen and understood.
This is an admirable and somewhat unexpected quality from a first-time director, particularly one working with material as potentially melodramatic and/or troublesome as this. We can comprehend how Melissa uses friendships and sex as a way to combat her crushing insecurity. We can see how Jeremy, who gave up acting and is now being pressured by his girlfriend (played by Trieste Kelly Dunn) to find a steadier job, would be drawn to the intelligent and passionate Abigail, even as his common sense and sense of decency keep him from acting out on his confused feelings. Jeremy is a problem as a character, for sure, since he's definitely a participant in encouraging Abigail's feelings toward him. Shepard takes the easy way out with the character, turning him into a man who's as insecure as the movie's teenaged leads.
For all of its sympathy, though, Blame feels rudderless until its conclusion, which puts the behavior of one character in an entirely different light, while leaving the other two as enigmatic as they began. We can tell there's a point to this—about the lack of real closure and the capacity to find common ground with seemingly unlikely people. That point, though, is lost in practice, because we're left wondering if we ever really knew these characters beyond their mysteries.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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