'M.F.A.': Film Review

Less a pulse-pounding thriller than a conversation starter about injustice and vigilantism.

Francesca Eastwood plays an art student whose rape triggers a killing spree in Natalia Leite's drama.

Lethal vengeance is a potent muse in M.F.A., Natalia Leite's film about an art student who takes the issue of unprosecuted campus rape into her own hands. Gratifying on a wish-fulfillment level (especially during the current avalanche of rape and assault reports), the picture is somewhat less satisfying conceptually, seeming to take conflicting positions on its protagonist's schemes at the same time. Still, it should trigger a positive visceral response for many during in its art house run.

Francesca Eastwood (daughter of Frances Fisher and Clint Eastwood) plays Noelle, a California art student having trouble finding a voice. Her fellow painters find the meek young woman's work shallow and safe; her instructor (Marlon Young) chides her, "Come on, Noelle, fail! Let's jump in the deep end this year!" He'll get his wish, and more.

When she's asked out by a fellow student she has a crush on (Peter Vack's Luke), Noelle tries to seize a moment for reinvention, making herself less mousy with the help of neighbor Skye (Leah McKendrick, who wrote the film). She goes to Luke's party, where things go beautifully until the two are behind closed doors. He immediately forces himself on her, ignoring her timid objections.

Back home, Skye warns Noelle not to report the rape to school administrators, predicting they'll suggest she's crazy or a slut; it was "one shitty night," she urges, "don't let it ruin the rest of your life." (As for going over the head of administrators and reporting the event to police, that's an option nobody discusses.) She reports it anyway, and is confronted with questions that, however relevant they might be to a crime investigation, suggest an extreme reluctance to pursue the case.

When Luke cluelessly texts "want to come over?," she does, hoping to get an apology. But he winds up dead, and Noelle flees the scene before his body is discovered. (After that discovery, Clifton Collins Jr.'s Detective Kennedy will chase clues that might lead to her.)

In the following scenes, Noelle starts connecting her experience to those of varied other women — some who want to forget they ever reported violence that went unpunished; some who form survivors' groups whose means of outreach (donating used beauty products to assault victims?!) don't always match their good intentions. All she sees are men who destroyed women's lives without repercussion, even when they documented their own crimes. So she takes things into her own hands.

Skeptical viewers may balk at how smoothly Noelle transforms into a seduce-and-slay vigilante here. Sure, her fratboy victims are easy targets once their libidos are engaged, but hunting and killing bad guys was never this easy for the trained assassin in Kill Bill, and in more serious vigilante films, vengeance comes with a higher emotional cost.

Simultaneously, Noelle's intense experiences are transforming her art. Leite turns her into a primal, writhing paint-slatherer in studio scenes, connecting M.F.A. to a lineage of murderer-artist tales going back to Roger Corman's comic A Bucket of Blood and beyond.

Though ripe for exploitation-flick treatment or cathartic sensationalism, the film starts dropping hints of a calm, critical distance from Noelle's killing spree. It steps back from expressionistic sound design (actually part of the effects-rich score by composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli) that puts us in her head during intense scenes and starts allowing scraps of dialogue that challenge the morality of her judge-jury-executioner agenda. But this line of reasoning stalls, and the pic resolves with a moral ambiguity one suspects is unintentional. In an acceptable world, people like Noelle's victims would be locked up soon after victimizing others, then prosecuted and found guilty. In lieu of that, no form of punishment civilians can mete out — even a front-page ouster from the movie studio you founded and public shaming from those who once praised you — feels even remotely adequate.

Production company: Villainess Productions
Distributor: Dark Sky Films
Cast: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Leah McKendrick, Peter Vack , Marlon Young, David Sullivan, Michael Welch, Mike C. Manning, David Huynh, Jess Nurse
Director: Natalia Leite
Screenwriter: Leah McKendrick
Producers: Shin Shimosawa, Leah McKendrick, Mike C. Manning
Executive producers: Mariah Owen, Kelvin Parker, Rob Angel
Director of photography: Aaron Kovalchik
Production designer: Kelly Fallon
Costume designer: Tika Von Mehren
Editor: Phil Bucci
Composers: Sonya Belousova, Giona Ostinelli
Casting director: Arlie Day

91 minutes