With the heightened spotlight on the work of female filmmakers across Hollywood especially over the past year, I was excited to see the directorial debut of 23-year old actress Quinn Shephard. I'm not overly familiar with her work, only recognizing her as one of the title unaccompanied minors in Paul Feig's 2006 film -- I'm unfamiliar with her television work, which has made up the bulk of her career.
I could look at her in a similar way to a baseball prospect: young and inexperienced but with incredible promise. Any filmmaker this young who is able to get a film financed, cast with known actors, and theatrically released is worth paying attention to -- even if the feature debut pitfalls are there, as they likely are, it is fun to get on the ground floor of a potential future filmmaker worth following.
With Blame, Shephard really goes for it. She takes on challenging subject matter and tries to approach it with maturity you wouldn't expect from a young auteur. It reaches for the emotional complexity and character of a modern version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which the film directly name-checks. Bringing these aspirations to a sultry high school drama is very ambitious, so even if Blame can't quite meet its own expectations, it is intriguing.
Blame definitely has the markers of the advanced, emotionally complicated young person behind the camera, for better or worse. It is incredibly moody and expressive. It looks at art with complete reverence, taking classic drama to elevate their every-day normally dramatic life. It is a bit shallow, too, and perhaps less mature than it is willing to let on. Still, this is a promising debut for Quinn Shepard and portends to features that can mesh her obvious eye for style with a stronger narrative.
What it's about: Abigail Grey [played by director Shephard] is a high school student with a troubled past who returns to classes after an unspecified incident. She sparks the interest of substitute drama teacher [Chris Messina] who casts her in the role of Abigail in a showcase performance of The Crucible. As their relationship becomes inappropriate, popular girl Melissa [Nadia Alexander] takes notice. The troubling implications that come directly from the affair are only heightened by Melissa's jealous, and potentially dangerous, reaction.
The film's tone is its biggest issue. It never really seemed to know just how dark it should go, introducing peak 80s sex thriller elements and then pulling back. Student-teacher affairs are a pretty loaded topic these days and Blame never crackles as much as it should. It can be uncomfortable when it wants to be [though the most uncomfortable scene in the film involves consensual sex between two teenagers] but I'm not sure if Shephard quite had the confidence or approval to make this a full-fledged, uncompromising thriller.
On the other hand, acting is the film's biggest strength. The performances of Quinn Shephard and Nadia Alexander really anchor the film with both anger and sexuality. Like the best high school performances, they read both complex and immature, they can be cunning at times and appropriately vulnerable at others.
Despite a really good performance by Shepard, Abigail is a difficult character to grasp. She is dark and mysterious but I'm not sure exactly why -- the way it deals with her possible mental illness is poorly defined. She almost comes off like a pixie dream girl a tinge deranged. Worse, I'm not exactly sure how you are supposed to relate to her. Is she a victim or a villain? It is fine to play in those shades of grey but it does it too opaquely.
Similarly, her relationship with Mr. Woods doesn't really develop as much as it just happens. She is vulnerable and talented but there is no emotional narrative for him to so easily jump into the taboo situation. Chris Messina, as the film's most notable casting, is fine in the role but the character doesn't have any sense of motivation.
As the film goes on, it becomes much more of an ensemble film than I realized. Melissa becomes a third lead with the film actually giving her character more of an emotional backstory -- one that ends on a bit of a twist that is on one hand more satisfying to where Abigail ends, but also a pretty easy and out-of-the-blue plot device. Two other characters, friends of Melissa, are given their own plot lines separate from the central affair. The time spent on this particular subplot gives the film a bit more depth but takes away from developing the more important characters.
One small sign that Shephard still needs to shed her precociousness: Abigail's classmates bully her by calling her "Sybil" as if any 17-year-old in this story would know that reference.