I'm going to spend a lifetime with Knives and Skin. Its pulse of color, vibrating hope on a low frequency. Its unapologetic exposure of our inner-selves that is unspeakable, primal, and plain messy. Its audiacity towards the indulgence of surreality. Knives and Skin is a filmic whole. Shot incredibly by Chris Rejano and written/directed by Midwest-based artist Jennifer Reeder, it is a complete body and mind. Everything we have and will experience if given the room. Due to its tonal soup, I celebrate its particular brilliance by speaking of and back to this film the way it spoke to me.
The vignette-like flow Knives and Skin prefers makes a linear reading unsatisfying. It is in the aftermath of enigmatic high schooler Carolyn Harper's (Raven Whitley) disappearance, that her peers, authority figures, and mother balance genuine, active concern with their personal unwavering anxiety in their Midwest town as this unfortunate circumstance is shrouded in mystery to the town's residents.
As the ensemble ruminates, they process how this will change their own lives through singing 80s pop bops turned lullabies, DIY attire homages to women in history, fresh expressions of exploratory romance, and the adult grapplings with mental illness, infidelity, unemployment, and underage philandering, iced with so much introspection, things may not seem immediately clear nor connected. Rest assured, the impeccable nuance brought to life by everyone in each frame promises you'll take home something seemingly vague, yet memorable that'll haunt your still moments. Specifically, Marika Engelhardt as Carolyn's fragile mother Lisa is the film's disconsolate obstruction balanced with "goth-punk" Charlotte (Ireon Roach) and Joanna (Grace Smith) as its delicate, riveting heart.
Visual echoes from thrillers past burn in the way Lisa moves through Carolyn's bedroom, wears her clothing, conducts a choir, hunts for anything that'll bring Carolyn back and provide answers. Her soul aches, and the only way she knows she's alive is by unpredictably testing and ultimately transgressing social and physical boundaries. It’s not pretty, beyond uncomfortable, and the real truth of grief suffered when no one is around. Nothing Lisa does may make any sense. Engelhardt nails every gut-wrenching posture, every cadence that honestly left me needing a nap and solitude afterwards.
Charlotte is self-assured and unknowing. With an enviable confidence of reliable, No Wave flare and performative prowess, beneath lies a similar bevy of insecurities that link to a common desire to make intimate connections a personal reality. A long, palpable glance at the football player Jason (Jalen Gilbert), who's a hint less shy about his interest reveals an assumed outsider, a rebel with yearnings like the rest of us. A perfect pitch tale of letting fear unravel to "g'on honey, take a chance," Charlotte's multipicitous emotional experience both mocks and puts social strata on the shelf as she and Jason come together in a way that is absolutely unmatched in any film like Knives and Skin before it. Double this with how cheerleader Laurel (Kayla Carter) and the sporty Colleen (Emma Ladji) entangle to weave a budding love spree and the film becomes straight up revolutionary.
Additionally, Knives and Skin is a story about the toxic clutter power and gender inequity consistently creates. These not yet women, far beyond girls confront the weight certain men and boys have imposed on their livelihoods. Those last moments we spend with Carolyn, and further with Joanna. She seems perpetually alone in every situation, most evident in the moment where the smarmy substitute English teacher (Alex Moss) intentionally brushes the side of her shoulder with his hip in class. No one else notices. All of disturbed, perplexed, and intrigued by his interest, Joanna struggles with his imposition but ultimately, embraces her calculated savvy to publicly beat him with his own tactics.
Her need to 'get out' doubles in meaning as she untethers herself from the emotional approval of her elders while finding slick ways to make enough money, maybe to pay application fees for a women's college. Her mother should want to love her. Her teacher should know his boundaries. And her brother Andy (Ty Olwin) shouldn't crudely invade her space, or the requests of others. In a perfect world, these are reasonable expectations. In the reality of Knives and Skin and sometimes our own, it inevitably doesn't exist for everyone. Instances like these that bring this ensemble together are the silent screams of women and girls who carry these grey difficulties, determined to figure out who they are and what they want. Knives and Skin piles on the pressure by presenting a variety ways adults and young women navigate the patriarchal landmines and fine tune their personal desires.
What Reeder brings to Knives and Skin is a most extraordinary marriage of influence (Rivers Edge, Safe, Blue Velvet, Je Tu Il Elle, Morvern Callar) and authenticity. This is her stage where quirks and plurality are laid visceral and bare. Knives and Skin plays a critical role in instinctual cinema, where there's a visual language guided by the keep-it-realness prose of each character. It's life. As simple as that sounds. It slaps because of how it exposes who we proudly are and who we find ourselves to be in our most challenging moments, and those reactions called emotions bristling in between. It's why I'll be spending a lifetime with Knives and Skin. It is a beautiful revelation that we are all whole, always and never alone. As coming-of-age, the film confesses, is a lifelong process.
Knives and Skin is available to stream now.