Film Review: Blame

A strong filmmaking debut from the multi-talented Quinn Shephard.
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Writer, director, editor and star Quinn Shephard has made a taut film that wears its literary inspirations on its sleeve and that largely succeeds in demonstrating the enduring fruitfulness of classic plays The Glass Menagerie and The Crucible. Although at times Blame seems overacted, and our protagonist remains elusive, it’ll keep you going thanks to Shephard’s deft pacing. Of the many titles this talented 22-year-old can claim, editor should not be overlooked.

It’s the beginning of another school year and Abigail (Shephard) is reluctant to return to her suburban high school. Last year there was an incident in her psych class that led her, so the rumors whisper, to be packed away to a funny farm. Just what this incident was is never explained, although we do know that it earned Abigail the nickname of “Sybil,” as in the woman with multiple personalities from the 1973 nonfiction bestseller. And indeed there is something off about Abigail: She’s self-consciously quiet, wears dresses buttoned to the throat, and walks with a pronounced limp. “Just like Laura Wingfield,” the sexy and ferociously insecure Melissa (Nadia Alexander) says derisively, naming a character from The Glass Menagerie and, in the process, helpfully shedding some light on the film’s opening shot of a glass unicorn figurine in Abigail’s bedroom. (CliffsNotes might be helpful as supplementary reading material here.) It seems that Abigail gets so wrapped up in the books she reads, she begins to mimic their characters. So you can imagine the turn things start to take when an attractive new drama teacher (Chris Messina) shows up and assigns her the part of the villainous Abigail from The Crucible.

But Abigail is not the only girl thirsting for attention. Her antagonist Melissa, the “cool” girl with her hair dyed red at the tips, her skirt riding up to her pelvis, her bralette on full display, is jealous. She wanted the part, and the slight rankles her. While Melissa schemes, Abigail gets too-close-for-legal-comfort to the drama teacher. The two girls butt heads, leading, to Shephard’s credit, to a dramatic conclusion that is both unexpected and believable.

When it comes to our leading-lady characters, there is no contest: Melissa with her brashness and fear is far and away more interesting than dreamy and manipulative Abigail. Neither actress, however, hits the mark quite roundly: Though Alexander won the Jury Award for Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, she has a tendency to exaggerate, to roll her eyes and sneer and prance like someone playing bitchy. It’s possible that her labored affect is part of her character, who is deeply insecure, but the fact that it’s not always apparent just who is overacting, the character or the actress, is a problem. That being said, the Tribeca audience may have been moved to celebrate Alexander for her part in the film’s climax, in which she does convince. With Abigail, Shephard has written herself a cipher. What motivates her is unclear, unless she is indeed as crazy as the mean girls snarl. A flash of deceitfulness hints at interesting depths that are never plumbed. It doesn’t help that when she speaks, Shephard doesn’t always fully enunciate and shuffles her words, sounding not unlike Minka Kelly.

But in the main, Blame succeeds thanks to its thriller-like pacing that makes for a slow burn, and to the filmmaker’s evident control of her material. While helping her drama teacher choose which scenes their class should perform for its showcase, Abigail suggests they pick only those that “tell the story.” This is precisely what Shephard has done. It’s true that her film doesn’t use the themes of the plays that inspired it in particularly surprising ways—this is not an against-the-grain-read—but that’s quibbling, for it does fit them comprehensibly into the world of a 21st-century high school. If there is little that can match the power of a work by Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, Blame is nevertheless a strong debut.

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