'Knives and Skin': Film Review

Chicago Film Project
School’s out forever in this richly weird cult curio.

A missing girl shakes up a small town in Jennifer Reeder’s Tribeca-bound mix of Lynchian thriller and high school musical.

The disappearance of a teenage schoolgirl sends psycho-sexual shock waves through a sleepy Illinois town in writer-director Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin, an agreeably offbeat coming-of-age thriller steeped in macabre humor and queer feminist attitude. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is the most obvious touchstone for this exercise in Midwestern gothic surrealism, alongside knowing nods to high-school classics like Heathers and Carrie and even vintage John Hughes movies. The dreamy mood and arch use of horror tropes also recall Richard Kelly’s one-off cult classic Donnie Darko, but Reeder’s second feature has plenty of its own rich, strange, original flavor too.

With its multi-racial, female-fronted cast, plus a plot that casually incorporates same-sex and mixed-race relationships, Knives and Skin ticks plenty of inclusive boxes without ever feeling like a worthy diversity exercise. Reeder also peppers the drama with female empowerment messages and subtle homages to feminist icons including Angela Davis, Yoko Ono and Chantal Akerman. These low-key nods and winks will likely help boost the film’s prospects with festivals and critics.

Reeder may have completed just a handful of features over her 25-year career, but her prolific canon of short films have screened in Berlin, Sundance, Rotterdam and other festivals. She has reworked and absorbed several of these shorts into Knives and Skin, which helps explain its slightly disjointed patchwork plot. While it suffers a little from narrative drift, uneven tone and an overlong running time, this auteur passion project is also refreshingly weird, with potential for cult success on big and small screen. The pic is set to make its U.S. debut next week at Tribeca.

From her opening scene onward, Reeder wrong-foots viewers with hints of vintage horror as knife-wielding single mom Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) prowls through her suburban house in search of her wayward daughter Carolyn (Raven Whitley), her malign intentions far from clear. But Carolyn is not home; she is down at the lake with boorish high-school jock Andy (Ty Olwin), whose pushy sense of entitlement soon turns nasty. When his sexual demands are spurned, Andy callously dumps Carolyn by the lakeside and drives home alone. She is never seen alive again.

Carolyn’s uncertain fate shakes up a sleepy town that is already awash with dark secrets. Andy’s sister Joanna (Grace Smith) is struggling with family issues, including a part-time party-clown father Dan (Tim Hopper) who prefers to live a lie than tell his volatile, depressive wife Lynn (Audrey Francis) that he has been fired from his job. He is also having a clandestine affair with Renee (Kate Arrington), the highly strung mother of Joanna’s classmate Laurel (Kayla Carter) and wife of Doug (James Vincent Meredith), the sheriff in charge of Carolyn’s case. A third girl in the group, strikingly dressed fashion queen Charlotte (Ireon Roach), appears more overtly confident, but still has to deal with sexist bullying on a daily basis.

Using Carolyn’s disappearance as a dramatic device, Knives and Skin highlights some of the oppressive pressures that weigh on young women generally, from useless boyfriends to sexually predatory teachers and dysfunctional, domineering parents. But Reeder is too smart to play simplistic heroes and villains. These mean girls themselves are hardly idealized feminist role models, casually branding their classmates as “sluts” and “bitches.” When one questions why they are so cruel, another shrugs, "That's all we've got.” 

Music is woven deeply into the film's fabric. The three main protagonists play together in a rock band, an oddly underused subplot, but they also sing together in a school choir. Their close-harmony versions of 1980s New Wave hits by the likes of New Order, Cyndi Lauper and The Go-Go’s provide sublimely joyful interludes to the action, especially when apparently dead characters join in on full cast numbers. Counterpointing these chirpy musical asides is a brooding electronic score by Nick Zinner, guitarist with New York alt-rockers Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose noir-ish Angelo Badalamenti undertones can hardly be accidental.

Reeder wrings fine performances from her mostly unschooled, youthful cast. Engelhardt deserves special mention as Carolyn’s deliciously unhinged mother, who is driven to tragicomic extremes of sexual and sartorial behavior by the loss of a daughter she half loves and half envies. Christopher Rejano's lustrous, color-saturated cinematography is also a pure pleasure, hinting at levels of giallo garishness and campy excess that the film itself never fully embraces. Knives and Skin is a bumpy ride at times, but it speaks with a boldly original auteur voice, and has plenty to say.

Production companies: Chicago Film Project
Cast: Grace Smith, Ireon Roach, Kayla Carter, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Marika Engelhardt, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, Kate Arrington, James Vincent Meredith
Director-screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder
Producers: Brian Hieggelke, Jan Hieggelke
Cinematographer: Christopher Rejano
Editor: Mike Olenick
Production designer: Adri Siriwatt
Music: Nick Zinner
Sales: WTFilms, France

111 minutes