'Make Up': Film Review

Make Up - Still H - 2020
Credit: IFFR
A fresh, grounded take on teenage confusion.

Claire Oakley's feature debut explores a teenager's emerging sexuality through the lens of the psychological thriller.

First love sours almost imperceptibly in Make Up, the assured feature debut of Claire Oakley, in which an off-season beach destination is just quiet enough to force an 18 year-old to grapple with questions she doesn't know she needs to ask. Atmosphere plays a large role here, opening up thriller-ish possibilities without disturbing the realism of a setting where teens in the service industry earn a living and don't think much about the future. Benefitting from an unassuming but dead-on performance by lead Molly Windsor, the picture may frustrate those expecting a true horror film, but earns Oakley a place alongside other young women (like Amy Seimetz and Sophia Takal) currently exploring the usefulness of genre conventions in feminist storytelling.

Windsor plays Ruth, an underconfident girl who has just arrived at a seaside RV park to take a seasonal job. Her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn) has worked here each of the past three years, repairing the rental vans tourists have vacated, and she's finally joining him for a winter.

They're a cute couple, making each other laugh with ease, but settling into a real domestic, workaday routine isn't the paid vacation Ruth may have expected. They spend their days apart, doing numbing chores with few coworkers to talk to, then come home to eat unadorned spaghetti and watch TV. (Tom eats his noodles between two slices of bread, an unbeatable all-carbs metaphor for monotony.)

On one of her first days alone in their trailer, Ruth notices a kiss-shaped imprint of lipstick on a bedroom mirror, then finds long red hairs all over one of Tom's shirts. She says nothing, even after she glimpses a redhead passing between trailers nearby. Is Tom sneaking around with someone else while he's supposed to be running errands? And with no redheads on the resort's small staff, who is this woman?

A possibility arrives in the person of Jade (Stefanie Martini, who played Helen Mirren's character in a Prime Suspect prequel). A free spirit who's soon sharing joints and drinks while encouraging Ruth to loosen up, Jade doesn't have red hair. But a shelf full of wigs, which she makes to sell to the elderly, contains one that perfectly matches the strands Ruth found. And when Tom learns the two have been hanging out, he warns Ruth without elaboration that Jade has a reputation as bad news.

As Oakley follows Ruth through the coming days, letting small actions and Windsor's eyes do most of the talking, she and DP Nick Cooke make subtle use of the setting. Air thick with sea spray creates haloes around overhead lamps at night; plastic sheeting around RVs, which are sealed up for fumigation, enhances the ghost-town mood. The vague otherworldliness turns any clue Ruth sees, or thinks she sees, into something a bit more menacing.

Fairly early on there are hints that, despite having been in a physical relationship for three years, Ruth is intimidated by sex. The unexpected sounds of someone making out in a public shower are unsettling enough to her they suggest the film may be moving in a violent direction; the erotic associations of a blazing-red manicure are similarly tied to hints of physical danger. While Windsor skillfully projects pre-adult sexual confusion, Oakley teases with De Palma-like suggestions of where all this is going. Here, though, blood-red clues point not to a climactic gory resolution but to a deepening of the film's more universal human mysteries.

Production companies: Quiddity Films, IFeatures
Distributor: Mutiny Pictures
Cast: Molly Windsor, Joseph Quinn, Stefanie Martini, Theo Barklem-Biggs, Lisa Palfey
Director-Screenwriter: Claire Oakley
Producer: Emily Morgan
Director of photography: Nick Cooke
Production designer: Sofia Stocco
Costume designer: Holly Smart
Editor: Sacha Szwarc
Composer: Ben Salisbury
Casting director: Olivia Scott-Webb

86 minutes