A film of slow dissolves and lots of ironic pinks, tinged with darker, crimson hues, Chicago filmmaker Jennifer Reeder.
Late one night, 15-year-old Carolyn (Raven Whitley), still wearing her marching band uniform, finds herself in an uncomfortable tryst with the toxic local football star Andy (Ty Olwin). She carves her initial in his forehead, like a mark of Cain, or a scarlet letter. Seconds later, when her curiosity gives way to disgust, Carolyn puts a stop to the evening. The boy’s rage bubbles over, and the girl is left bleeding and alone by the water.
As hours turn into days, “Knives and Skin” turns into a village-wide mosaic of searching and longing. The townspeople don’t know if Carolyn is dead or alive. Caught in a heartland version of Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” few bother to care. Reeder, who directs her own screenplay, focuses on three classmates and their variously fraught families. Andy’s drug dealer sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), catches the eye of her transgressive substitute English teacher (Alex Moss). Cheerleader Laurel (Kayla Carter) and emo-forward musician Charlotte (Ireon Roach) wonder, as does Joanna, if Carolyn’s fate has even begun to pierce the secrets held in their suffocating universe.
Kate Arrington, an ensemble standout, plays the apparently pregnant mother of the high school mascot (Robert T. Cunningham). The mascot’s father (James Vincent Meredith) humanizes the role of the local sheriff, who investigates at his own pace while his wife is off in an affair with Joanna’s father (Tim Hopper, in clown-face makeup at odd junctures).
Reeder is deadly serious about the film’s themes of teenage girls’ fears, desires and demons, though there’s a fair amount of deadpan black comedy, along with some effective choir sequences (Carolyn’s choir director mother is played by Marika Engelhardt). “Twin Peaks” looms as an acknowledged influence, as Reeder has noted in interviews, though you’d have to search long and hard to find any sexed-up misogyny here.
Several ideas and motifs in this sleek, locally made feature, photographed and designed with a fine eye for everyday disorientation, can be found in Reeder’s short films, among them “A Million Miles Away”
A different editing rhythm (and a less narcotic musical score) would substantially change the personality of this movie, for better or worse. Since she filmed “Knives and Skin,” already Reeder has shown she has more than one trick up her sleeve, with her clever, stylish Hulu Halloween themed short film, “The Dunes.” The reviews of “Knives and Skin” have been all over the place, and they do not break down by gender alone: Jen Yamato of the Los Angeles Times called it “a mesmerizing tapestry,“ while in Variety, Valerie Complex wrote it off as a “tedious viewing experience.”
It sounds wrong, but they’re both half-right. I look forward to the next Reeder film; if her strongest work to date has been in the short-film format, well, features are longer, and harder, especially if you’re carving your own path as a filmmaker.
‘KNIVES AND SKIN’
No MPAA rating (language, violence, sexual material)
Running time: 1:51