Grieving sucks. There’s no one way to do it and you can feel like a mere shell of your true self at the best of times. There’s also no way to know how long it’ll last or what’ll help you get over it. And, yes, it’s true, some people deal with grief in fairly self-destructive, and possibly outwardly destructive ways. (And when you’ve got two of those kinds of people around… run.) The directorial debut of Amber Tamblyn, Paint It Black, which premiered last weekend at the LA Film Fest, deals exactly with this kind of grief—the nasty, ugly, desperate, angry kind…and does so amazingly artfully.
Based on Janet Fitch’s novel of the same name, Paint It Black uses the backdrop of Los Angeles—a city where people go to make their dreams come true—but doesn’t belabor that point, instead focusing on a pair of people who never should have met, and yet are forced to through their shared despair. Ruining each other’s lives—and attempting murder (yes, it happens)—becomes troublingly cathartic to them.
The film stars Alia Shawkat, who gives a gorgeously raw performance as Josie, a bohemian in LA who seems to do all sorts of different artistic ventures, but makes most of her money through modeling. She is gobsmacked to learn that her live-in boyfriend Michael (Rhys Wakefield), who has been missing for a week, has committed suicide. She quickly devolves into a cycle of drinking too much, sleeping all day, and going to a rock club all night. Nothing seems to help. She gets a call from Michael’s rich, famous concert pianist mother Meredith (Janet McTeer), who blames Josie for her son not being around and for his suicide. This isn’t an idle call; at the funeral, Meredith tries to strangle Josie to death.
From there, the two begin a very weird, very warped, very unhealthy string of encounters—alternately being there for each other and doing awful, deplorable things to each other. The movie is funny at times, but it’s not a comedy by any means. We’re not supposed to think this is hilarious—these women are not right in the head, each believing she somehow forced Michael to suicide as well as blaming the other in some form. Hating and needing each other becomes a vicious cycle, and one of them will need to break out of it.
Tamblyn’s work is incredibly self-assured for a first time director. Naturally, she’s been around cinema her whole life, but she takes chances and has a very clear visual style and point of view. She allows her actresses to carry whole scenes on the virtue of their performances alone, and peppers in wordless montages to illustrate emotional moments as well as fill in backstory where needed. It feels at times like an experimental film but never strays too far away from the deeply pained and dysfunctional story at hand. A fine and strong piece of work.
Its only fault is that it feels a bit meandering at times, however it’s all in service of the main character’s mental and emotional state, which itself doesn’t seem to know where it’s going. What do you do when you lose the love of your life in such a stupid, final, unexpected way? It may not be the way you deal with loss, but it will surely resonate with anyone who’s felt like they’ve lost the light in their life.
No word yet on distribution, but I can’t imagine it’ll remain unclaimed for long. Look for Paint It Black in the near future.
Image: Olive Productions and Tangerine Entertainment