'Blame': Film Review | Tribeca 2017

A mixed bag of a directorial debut.

In her feature directorial debut, Quinn Shephard plays a high-school student who grows dangerously close with her drama teacher (Chris Messina).

Blame, the feature directorial debut of 22-year-old Quinn Shephard, is something of a fakeout. What looks to be another queasily steamy story of a student's affair with her teacher gradually morphs into a drama exploring the toxic tangle of relationships between four young women at a New Jersey high school. That doesn't mean the movie, premiering in Tribeca's U.S. Narrative Competition, works; Blame essentially flirts with one set of clichés only to settle down with another. But it has the merit of at least striving for the substantive (the agonies of teenage girlhood) over the merely titillating (transgressive sex). Along the way, the film is powered by some fine acting, as well as a current of sincere feeling that helps you forgive some of its more conspicuous flaws and limitations.

Shephard stars as Abigail, a quiet, darkly pretty 11th grader who returns to school after a long absence. The screenplay (by Shephard and her mother, Laurie) is a bit coy about the exact circumstances surrounding Abigail's time off, but it's clear from her classmates' snide remarks — several refer to her as "Sybil" — that she suffered some sort of mental breakdown.

Particularly cruel to Abigail is vampish popular girl Melissa (Nadia Alexander), a nightmarish cheerleader/punk-princess hybrid with dyed red hair and a perma-scowl. Melissa's main henchwoman is milder-mannered Sophie (the terrific Sarah Mezzanotte), a leggy blonde whose childhood BFF, down-to-earth Ellie (Tessa Albertson, also excellent), wants nothing to do with Melissa.

In the normative world of the all-American suburban high school, Abigail's psychiatric history makes her an easy target for bullies like Melissa and hot jock Eric (Luke Slattery) — as does the fact that she's an eccentric, the kind of intense drama nerd who walks with a limp for days prior to performing a scene as Laura Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie in theater class.

One day, the teacher of that class goes on maternity leave, and in walks handsome substitute Jeremy (Chris Messina). Overseeing the students' preparation of scenes from Arthur Miller's The Crucible for an annual showcase, Jeremy is faced with a choice when it comes to who will play Abigail Williams, the vengeful Salem teen who accuses the wife of the man she loves of witchcraft: Abigail and Melissa both want the role, and, drawn to the former's steady, serious gaze amid all the eye-rolling, cellphone-clutching obnoxiousness of her peers, Jeremy picks Abigail. ("I'm going to have to go with the namesake here," Jeremy says, as Melissa seethes.)

When Eric, cast as John Proctor (the object of Abigail Williams' forbidden desire), flakes out on rehearsals, Jeremy steps in to play the part. A vulnerable, comely teenage girl and a sympathetic but insecure hunk of a mentor running lines as sexually combustible ex-lovers? The setup is familiar, and it's thanks both to Shephard's sensitive touch behind the camera and Messina's skill in front of it — a crack utility player, the indie stalwart and Mindy Project star excels in roles all over the likeability spectrum — that this story doesn't feel overtly icky.

Unfortunately, it's not very compelling, either. We've seen a lot of questionable student-teacher relationships on big and small screens over the years, and nothing in this one — from Abigail's fragile mental health to Jeremy's fragile ego — is particularly fresh or challenging. Melissa's machinations and rumor-mongering are also straight out of a narrative playbook the pages of which are tattered from overuse.

Shephard, happily, is more interested in the volatile dynamics between her young characters than the illicit near-fling and ensuing gossip. Like the (far superior) recent Netflix addiction 13 Reasons Why, the film benefits from an acute sense of the cruelties, both petty and deep-cutting, unwitting and calculated, that teenagers inflict on one another, as well as the suffocating social pressures they face. Nastiness abounds in Blame, but the writer-director brings an empathy to the material — a willingness to locate hidden depths in even the meanest of mean girls — that keeps it from feeling cheap or facile. When everything's said and done, these kids are all victims of an awful age, Shephard seems to be saying.

What's regrettable is how frequently she resorts to cliché and convention to underline that idea: the third-act explanation for Melissa's misbehavior is one particularly glaring example; the movie's use of The Crucible as a mirror for its own narrative and themes is another. Blame is on more dramatically fertile ground when diving into the admirably complex web of shifting alliances among its four young female characters. Ellie, especially, emerges as an intriguing moral touchstone, eavesdropping on Abigail and Jeremy's increasingly intimate rehearsals but refusing to judge them, or even disclose what she witnesses.

The film is sleekly shot and edited, though it's best appreciated as a vehicle for the gifted cast — most notably Alexander, a vivid performer who gives Melissa an edge of palpable fury, but also an underlying layer of wounded pride. She, not Shephard's Abigail, is the real Abigail Williams of this story (and so good you wish you could see her read a few lines as Miller's iconic antagonist).

Alexander pulls the film's center of gravity away from Shephard, who is an affecting presence, but struggles to make sense of an exceedingly opaque and withholding character; intended as a sort of dual portrait of two very different teenage girls, Blame inevitably ends up feeling lopsided. Viewed in another light, though, that may be a testament to Shephard's generosity as a director — something that promises much for her future.

Production company: Reel Enigma
Writer-director: Quinn Shephard
Cast: Quinn Shepard, Nadia Alexander, Chris Messina, Tate Donovan, Sarah Mezzanotte, Tessa Albertson, Luke Slattery, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Marcia DeBonis
Producers: Laurie Shephard, Quinn Shephard
Story by: Quinn & Laurie Shephard
Director of photography: Aaron Kovalchik

Composer: Peter Henry Phillips
Art director: Lucy Goldberg
Costume designer: Celeste Montalvo
Editor: Quinn Shephard
Casting director: Laurie Shephard
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)

100 minutes