'Paint It Black': LAFF Review

Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival
A piercing dissection of grief, beautifully acted.

Alia Shawkat and Oscar nominee Janet McTeer star as two women trying to fathom a young artist's suicide in actress Amber Tamblyn's directorial debut.

Among the dramatic films showcased at this year’s LA Film Festival, Paint It Black certainly stands as one of the most audacious. The directorial debut of actress and writer Amber Tamblyn features two strong performances and an expressionistic, non-linear style that can be challenging but ultimately seems appropriate to the subject of the film. Although the pic may not ignite the box office, it stays in the memory and promises an intriguing future for Tamblyn.

The feature, adapted by Tamblyn and Ed Dougherty from Janet Fitch’s 2006 novel, begins with a distraught young woman, Josie (Alia Shawkat), receiving a phone call that announces the suicide of her boyfriend. As she tries to make sense of this horrific act, Josie recalls her romance with Michael (Rhys Wakefield), an artist. But when she tries to attend his funeral, she has a confrontation with Michael’s mother, Meredith (Janet McTeer), an imperious concert pianist. Meredith’s ex-husband (Alfred Molina) tries to calm the waters, but during the next several days, Josie and Meredith interact warily as they try to come to terms with Michael’s death.

Fitch may be best known for an earlier novel about a destructive mother, White Oleander, which was turned into a more conventional narrative movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Alison Lohman and Renee Zellweger. Tamblyn has said that admirers of Fitch’s novel might be confused by her adaptation, but the author has endorsed the movie as an inventive interpretation of the themes she meant to express.

The film probes the experience of grief in a subjective, intuitive manner, and it achieves remarkable intensity in exploring this theme. The narrative dislocations convey the disorientation that can trail a sudden, senseless death. Although Josie and Meredith are deeply suspicious of each other, they are bound together in grief, and the scenes depicting their conflict are startlingly raw.

Both actresses do some of their strongest work in cutting to the quick of the women’s pain. Shawkat conveys the bewilderment and desolation that Josie feels while also convincing us that this young woman has the grit to survive. McTeer is superb, never a cartoon villainess, but commanding and maddening in equal measure. Molina makes the most of his few scenes.

Near the end of Paint It Black, the film introduces a new character — the young woman who found Michael’s body at the seedy motel where he was staying. Elizabeth Nolan has only a few moments on camera, but we understand the searing pain that she still harbors, a reminder that shock and grief can have a lasting impact even on people who didn’t know the victim well. The ending that brings her together with Josie may be a little too sketchy to be fully convincing, but Nolan’s performance is compelling.

Tamblyn demonstrates impressive command of the camera in her feature debut. Mac McCaughan’s haunting, dissonant score enhances the film’s impact. 

Venue: LA Film Festival (US Fiction Competition)
Cast: Alia Shawkat, Janet McTeer, Rhys Wakefield, Alfred Molina, Emily Rios
Director: Amber Tamblyn
Screenwriters: Amber Tamblyn, Ed Dougherty, based on the novel by Janet Fitch
Producers: Wren Arthur, Amy Hobby, Anne Hubbell, Amber Tamblyn
Executive producers: Carlene Laughlin, Janet McTeer, Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci
Director of photography: Brian Rigney Hubbard
Production designer: Markus Kirschner
Costume designer: Christine Peters
Editor: Paul Frank
Music: Mac McCaughan

Not rated, 96 minutes

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