'Ladyworld': Film Review

Ladyworld Still 1  Cleopatra Entertainment-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment
Too stylized for its own good.

Eight teenage girls are trapped in a mansion after an earthquake in Amanda Kramer's surreal psychological thriller.

There's an inherent risk to films whose action takes place in a highly claustrophobic setting. Unless kept fully engaged in the proceedings, audiences may come to feel as restless and trapped as the figures onscreen. That's certainly what happens with Amanda Kramer's low-budget, stylized drama delivering a femme-oriented riff on Lord on the Flies. Depicting the rapid descent into emotional anarchy suffered by eight teenage girls stranded in a mansion after an earthquake, Ladyworld proves as much of an endurance test for viewers as the central characters.

Clearly designed to be disorienting on both a narrative and sensory level, the film begins with a black screen accompanied by the sounds of loud rumbling and young girls screaming. The ensuing story is set during an elaborate birthday party, when the participants find themselves trapped after what may or may not have been a natural event that has left the house sunken into the ground.

Figuring out what to do, the girls decide that they need a leader, resulting in a vote determining that Olivia (Ariela Barer) should take on the position. She reluctantly accepts, although the decision doesn’t sit well with Piper (Annalise Basso), who clearly lusts after the role.

At first things are mostly harmonious as the girls attempt to make the best of their situation and enjoy the leftover birthday cake, the only food remaining. But tension soon develops, especially when one of them claims to have spotted a man hiding in the house. Lacking access to water or electricity, their desperation only increases as the days wear on.

As does the strangeness of their behavior, which starts out innocently enough before devolving into an emotional and physical battleground whose intensity is only heightened by their fragile teenage psyches. Some of the girls begin to wear garish makeup on their faces that give them the appearance of kabuki performers. They also decide to go ahead and finish the birthday celebration, although the proceedings are far from festive. '"This party would be a lot more fun if boys were here," one of the girls complains, and viewers may find themselves nodding in agreement.

There's nothing terribly logical about what's being presented. We see an open window that seems accessible enough for the girls to escape from. And there seems little reason for one of them to have to pee in a washing machine. But the filmmaker is clearly not interested in presenting a realistic story but rather a surreal, nightmarish vision, the impact of which is certainly enhanced by the disturbing, ambient sound design and the hallucinatory cinematography by Patrick Meade Jones that often makes a point of presenting all eight characters within the frame. The images are undeniably haunting, especially one in which the girls are gathered around a long dining table as if posing for a modernist version of "The Last Supper."

Unfortunately, the excessive stylization quickly becomes wearisome. Despite the best efforts of the young ensemble that includes Barer (Hulu's Runaways), Basso (Captain Fantastic) and Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman, and currently seen in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), none of the characters makes much of an impression. We certainly don't come to care about any of them.

With its single setting and avant-garde affectations, Ladyworld might have been more palatable as a theater piece. Even then, it would probably best be appreciated in an East Village basement space and under the influence of certain substances.   

Production companies: Love & Death Productions, Pfaff & Pfaff Productions
Distributor: Cleopatra Entertainment
Cast: Ariele Barer, Annalise Basso, Ryan Simpkins, Odessa Adlon, Maya Hawke, Tatsumi Romano, Zora Casabere, Atheena Frizzell
Director: Amanda Kramer
Screenwriters: Amanda Kramer, Benjamin Shearn
Producers: Thomas R. Burke, Amanda Kramer, Leal Naim, Jamie Dolan
Director of photography: Patrick Meade Jones
Production designer: Noel David Taylor
Editors: Benjamin Shearn, Noel David Taylor
Composer: Callie Ryan

93 minutes