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In Dasha Nekrasova’s feature directorial debut, The Scary of Sixty-First, New York City is a desolate place. The sky is a muddy beige with no indication of sun. The cast is tight and minimalist with rarely any extras to be seen. The streets are deserted and the shops are empty. The only people that seem to exist are new roommates Addie (Betsey Brown) and Noelle (Madeline Quinn), as well as anyone else who happens to be in their orbit.
Addie is an archetypal aspiring actress with a chronically disinterested boyfriend named Greg (Mark Rapaport). Noelle is an unemployed wise-ass, with no interests beyond making fun of the people around her. The scope of the film’s world is determined by these women, narrowing to accommodate them. As a twosome, Addie and Noelle seem to only care about each other, which manifests in both positive and negative ways. Addie’s codependency takes the form of a desperate quest for Noelle’s approval while Noelle seems to only find joy in denying Addie the intimacy she so desperately wants. This dynamic is obviously unsustainable, with the threads of their bond coming looser every second.
Addie and Noelle have just moved in together and there’s something ominous about their apartment. When they arrive, the place is dirty, with a pantry full of rotting food. It’s clear something is wrong as Addie begins to have troubling nightmares. Later, Noelle inspects her bed to find blood and various stains on the mattress.
Eventually, a mysterious woman (Nekrasova) arrives, with some troubling information that kickstarts the plot. As it turns out, they’re staying in an apartment that used to belong to recently deceased businessman and pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The woman, credited only as The Girl, has been investigating his death and like many others has concluded that it was not a suicide. Equipped with drugs and multiple open Google Chrome tabs, she pulls Noelle into her search for the truth about Epstein. The women quickly become lovers, alternating between getting high, having sex and obsessing over every clue they can get their hands on.
Meanwhile, Addie is showing signs of possession; her voice becomes higher, her actions become more erratic and she is increasingly isolated from Noelle. One night, she walks to Epstein’s townhouse, stands in front of it and begins masturbating furiously, her body wiggling rapidly. The next day, during sex with Greg, she surprises him with a request: “Fuck me like I’m 13.” By this point, her voice has become alarmingly childish; she’s fully immersed in one-sided fetish play. When Greg immediately recoils, Addie insists that she has no idea what she said.
After this disagreement, Addie goes back to the apartment and holes up in her room, obsessively looking at photos of Prince Andrew from the ’80s and ’90s, putting them between her legs and masturbating with her tongue out. Despite the inherently disturbing nature of these scenes, they play as oddly flat. Brown performs her possession as if she knows an audience is watching her, stopping just short of winking at the camera. Her movements lack the authenticity of a person who is truly being taken over by a force other than herself. Because Addie spends the majority of the film alone, these scenes begin to feel like a one-woman acting exercise.
Quinn and Nekrasova don’t fare much better, as their scenes often boil down to a circular pattern of rambling. Noelle and The Girl see signs and symbols everywhere, and suggest frequently that they are getting to “the truth” about Epstein. But it’s all tell and no show. Sometimes it feels as if they’re speaking in tweets, making reference to “cucks,” “redpilling” and “pizzagate.” Their dialogue is also peppered with slurs that sound awkward and unnatural coming out of the actors’ mouths.
That’s a shame, as the two actresses have genuine chemistry. Nekrasova excels at portraying intimate scenes between Noelle and The Girl, keeping the camera’s focus on the way they look at each other. Their sex scenes are the most realistic part of the film, with their fixation on Epstein feeling more and more like a distraction from an interesting romance.
The Scary of Sixty-First is essentially a standard horror film characterized by hazy visuals (we are treated to the same succession of images — a card with a sun and two half-naked children on it, an eerie animal molding on a building, splotchy red pools), a mumblecore aesthetic and performative sexuality that’s almost desperate in its desire to shock. Nekrasova thrusts pedophilia at us with no investigation of either its material harm or the psychology behind it; the film seems to have no real insight on Epstein, his associates, his death or his victims.
The actresses are left to circle the beginnings of a story that never delves beyond its surface details. The Epstein conspiracy here is ultimately merely an excuse for taboo fetish play, culminating in a bloody finale that any viewer could see from a mile away. In the end, Nekrasova is too preoccupied with cultural relevance to actually craft a compelling film.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Encounters)
Production company: Stag Pictures, Spacemaker Productions
Cast: Dasha Nekrasova, Betsey Brown, Madeline Quinn, Mark Rapaport
Writer-director: Dasha Nekrasova
Producers: Adam Mitchell, Mark Rapaport
Executive producers: Richard Tannenbaum, Alex Hughes, Lenny Vigden, Charmaine Kowalski, David Peretz
Director of photography: Hunter Zimny
Production designer: Kyle Brown
Costume designer: Victoria Cronin
Art director: Charlie Robinson
Music: Eli Keszler
Editor: Sophie Corra
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