The premise of Blame, the feature debut of writer/director/actress Quinn Shephard, sounds like the stuff of tawdry late night television: two teen girls battle for the attention of their handsome drama teacher, and the lead role in the school’s production of The Crucible. You might suspect campy dialogue, overwrought teen angst, and soft-core leering at nubile young women in fetishized school uniforms. But Shepard brilliantly subverts these expectations, delivering a tenacious and tender teen drama that’s rich with scandal and sex appeal yet nuanced, never losing sight of its feuding heroines’ humanity.
Blame begins by introducing two very different young women. Awaking in a bedroom messily splashed with abrasive colors and pages hastily torn from magazines, Melissa (Nadia Alexander) is brash and volatile, barking at her stepfather, before sliding herself into micro-mini skirts and plunging v-necks that demand all eyes be on her. She’s the mean girl always on the prowl for a fight. Then there’s introverted Abigail (Shephard), whose bedroom is all soft pastels, primly hung prints, and dainty glass animals, including a fragile unicorn that she cradles with care. She favors turtlenecks, long skirts, and walks with a limp. But when its revealed that she left school last year after a breakdown in psychology (that earned her the sinister nickname “Sybil”), you begin to suspect there’s more to this demure girl than meets the eye.
As it’s revealed The Glass Menagerie was required summer reading, things becomes more clear. Lost and lonely, Abigail is searching for herself like many teen girls do, through exploring different personas, in her case characters from plays, liking the limping Laura from the Tennessee Williams classic, or the duplicitous vixen of Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible. As the class assignment shifts from one to the other, Abigail ditches the limp, and begins dressing like a sexy Wednesday Addams cosplay, black long-sleeved dresses punctuated by stark white collars and dark lipstick. Substitute drama teacher Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina) has no idea what trouble he’s spurred by bringing the play of witch hunts and repressed passions to a classroom of theater kids thirsting for both.
Impressed with Abigail’s commitment and talent, Jeremy encourages her with private, after school rehearsals. And the lines of their relationship dangerously blur. Meanwhile, Melissa stews with jealousy, and vows revenge, pulling insecure cheerleader Sophie (Sarah Mezzanotte) into her scheme. Yet Shephard doesn’t make Melissa an outright villain. The fascinating first-time filmmaker rejects simple black and white definitions of good and bad, to explore how everyday people can end up doing stupid and even cruel things.
With scarlet-ombre locks and a defiant glint in her eye, Alexander bursts onto the screen with a dazzling arrogance, instantly establishing Melissa as a Queen Bee not to be messed with. She conquers cafeteria tables with gossip and snarking, and is quick to shut down anyone who’d push back against her bullying, including Sophie’s childhood pal Ellie (Tessa Alertson). But as Abigail thrives under Jeremy’s attention, Melissa’s confident facade begins to crack. Her anger edged with envy and a growing insecurity bursts forth in a shocking finale with a heartbreaking reveal.
Alexander’s powerful and layered performance won her an acting award at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Blame made its world premiere. But every performance in Shephard’s debut is notably strong. Mezzanotte tackles tender teen moments of infighting with friends, peer pressure, and a disastrous first time with an aching openness. With earned eyerolls and a sparkling emotional awareness, Alertson steals scenes as the sidelined bff, while providing a mature counterpoint to Melissa’s trouble-making gossip.
With his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, Messina is perfectly cast as a lust-inspiring teacher. And rather than play Jeremy as a predictably loathsome predator, Messina–and Shephard’s script–dare to show a side that’s more lost and thoughtless than domineering or malicious. Make no mistake, Blame does not excuse Jeremy his trespasses, but neither does it damn him out the gate. To do so, would be to reject the very complexity of human emotion and reason that Blame so beautifully and daringly explores.
But Shephard is owed the greatest praise for Blame. As a performer, she creates a fascinating enigma of a girl, whose complicated truth blossoms through classroom confrontations, private moments of lustful idolatry, and tear-streaked confessions. As a writer, this infuriatingly talented 22-year-old constructed a clever parallel to the taboo romance of The Crucible to explore teen passion, and critique grown men’s responsibility in toying with this powerful force. As a director, she crafted a film that’s moody, raw, enthralling, and haunting. While things become undone as Blame barrels toward its final act–with jarring plot developments and clunky pacing–this too seems fitting, like the film is breaking down along with its dual heroines.
All this collides into a finale that is simple, challenging, and elegant. All this reveals that Shephard is an emerging auteur to watch.
4 out of 5 burritos.
Images: Reel Enigma