In the queer-tinged “Knives and Skin,” the disappearance of 15-year-old Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) sends shockwaves throughout the community. Moreover, although Carolyn’s body is seen periodically throughout writer and director Jennifer Reeder’s mystifying film, the emphasis is less about what happened to Carolyn, and more the strange behavior of Carolyn’s friends, family members and her friends’ family members.
Opening Dec. 6 at the PFS Roxy Theater, “Knives and Skin” takes an experimental approach to its drama. Carolyn is last seen being left behind by her blue-balled boyfriend, Andy (Ty Olwin). Before he abandoned her, Carolyn scratched Andy’s forehead, marking him — from then on, he is always bleeding in various ways. Viewers are invited to ascribe meaning to this as well as other provocative, enigmatic scenes. When Carolyn’s distraught mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) literally sniffs around Andy’s car and wears his T-shirt, along with one of her daughter’s outfits, symbolized is her longing for and loss of her daughter. One can also read the curious sequences of two teenage lesbians, Laurel (Kayla Carter) and Colleen (Emma Ladji), swapping various objects — including a miniature porcelain cat, a teapot and even a Statue of Liberty replica — over the wall of their adjoining bathroom stalls as a metaphor for their intimacy (especially given where they hide these objects in their bodies).
Objects are certainly of importance to the characters. Joanna (Grace Smith) talks to a doll, and one doll is said to have real teeth. A tiger T-shirt worn by Joanna’s mother, Lynn (Audrey Francis), talks to her in one critical scene, and then there are Carolyn’s new glasses that glow, suggesting magical powers. What any of this means is left for viewers to puzzle out. But these moments are compelling, as is most of “Knives and Skin.”
One of Reeder’s most interesting contributions is having the characters sing a cappella ’80s songs, such as “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Promises, Promises,” to indicate their emotions. In contrast, much of the film’s dialogue is delivered in a flat, deliberately wooden style. The film is set and shot in Illinois. When Dan (Tim Hopper) advises his injured son, Andy, “Hey, you can talk to me about anything,” it comes across as more deadpan than caring.
Reeder is looking to satirize teen and coming-of-age tropes here, and her film is most effective in that regard. The high school characters exchange thoughts about homecoming in ways that run counterintuitive to most movies about adolescents. Likewise, an episode featuring Jesse (Robert T. Cunningham) on the school’s roof punctures teen suicide and small-town escape motifs.
But Reeder’s highly stylized and detached perspective is likely to distance viewers, however impressive individual parts are. The film is a triumph of production design from the costumes to décor, and the synth music and dreamy visuals are flawless. Reeder features slow pans, fades and other visual gimmicks that lull audiences into a state of near hypnosis, which masks the film’s lack of dramatic tension. When the community gathers to hunt for Carolyn, they are told, “If you find Carolyn, [and] she’s OK, yell ‘I need the knife!’ as loudly as you can.
If she’s not OK, yell, ‘Give me some skin’ as loudly as you can.” It may explain the title, but this scene doesn’t generate any real suspense. Instead, Laurel’s pregnant mother, Renee (Kate Arrington), provides an awkward laugh when she begs her daughter to stay with her because she is not wearing the right shoes.
“Knives and Skin” is, at times, darkly funny. When Joanna talks with Principal Markum (Tony Fitzpatrick) about a three-bean salad, she is speaking in code about selling her mother’s used underwear to him. Joanna also creates a sonnet for her teacher Aaron’s (Alex Moss) English class using an inappropriate text he sent her.
But even if these scenes — or a revenge Charlotte (Ireon Roach) gets on Andy — are satisfying examples of strong women, much of Reeder’s film is perplexing. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. There are some unforgettable visuals, such as Lynn’s making meatloaf during an intense close-up, and then throwing it at her husband’s car, or the image of a melting ice-cream cake Lisa hoped to give to her daughter. The sadness, madness and despair of these two mothers is palpable.
Reeder gets strong performances from her ensemble cast, with Grace Smith, Kate Arlington and Marika Engelhardt the standouts.
“Knives and Skin” keeps the dots between the events and characters perhaps too far apart. The opening scene hints at tensions between Carolyn and her mother, Lisa, and such ambiguity percolates through the entire film. While some of the obscurity may be frustrating, Reeder rewards viewers who make an effort to tease out the possible connections.