She's Lost Control: Berlin Review

Brooke Bloom in "She's Lost Control"
Somewhat overly infatuated with its own dour, subdued style, but not without interest.

A sex therapy practitioner endangers her own stability when private and professional boundaries blur with a troubled client in this stark New York-set indie drama.

Writer-director Anja Marquardt’s austerely elegant first feature is a chilly psychological stroll through the minefield of other people’s emotional damage, with a title that doubles as a plot spoiler as to where the protagonist is headed – even if the film, by contrast, remains tightly wound. While it’s acted with naturalistic intensity by a committed cast, She’s Lost Control will be too glacial and distancing for most tastes. But the story of a behavioral psychologist specializing in sexual surrogacy provides insight into intriguing characters for whom professional intimacy supplants personal relationships.

Premiering in Berlin ahead of a South by Southwest U.S. bow, the film makes special acknowledgement to Lodge Kerrigan in the end credits, and it’s easy to imagine that the director of Clean, Shaven, Claire Dolan and Keane might have been an influence here. Certainly, Marquardt aims to inhabit her principal characters’ heads by means as unflinching as Kerrigan’s, even if the results are rarely as unsettling, penetrating or complex. However, her film sustains tension and is arrestingly lit and shot, exhibiting a sharp eye for expressive compositions and a persuasive feel for the sheer alienating physical density of New York City life.

While completing her Masters, Ronah (Brooke Bloom) takes on a small number of clients with intimacy issues, referred through a therapist (Dennis Boutsikaris). We sit in on a range of verbal and sexual sessions designed to help men overcome their fears, showing Ronah to be a dedicated and compassionate professional. But the film’s primary focus is her work with a new client, Johnny (Marc Menchaca). Barely able to make eye contact with her at first, the handsome, bearded hospital staffer is alternately nervous, cagey and hostile, proving a hard nut to crack. Almost every small breakthrough is followed by a door slamming shut, making her question whether he’s beyond help.

The establishing scene of this service relationship is quite compelling in its clinical efficiency, with the signing of a mutual confidentiality agreement, a mouth swab for STDs, and payment upfront preceding any personal conversation. The agreement stipulates that their meetings are “not for sexual gratification or entertainment,” drawing a line between Ronah’s work and prostitution. However, she keeps the nature of her business private given that outsiders may not see the distinction.

Her sessions with Johnny are interwoven with glimpses of her own solitary life – lonely meals; hormone shots in order to freeze her eggs should she later want to have a child; Skype conversations with her brother (Ryan Homchick) in which she appears unmoved by the deterioration of their mother’s health; legal hassles with her apartment building over a water leak. In exchanges with her teacher and colleague (Laila Robins), it becomes clear that Ronah doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with anything beyond her work, and that maintaining boundaries with Johnny is becoming increasingly difficult.

Marquardt overdoes the foreshadowing of where their tentative understanding of one another is headed, as Ronah exposes more and more of herself, while Johnny’s softening never masks the fact that he’s ill-equipped for what’s happening. Still, though it generates few surprises, the movie’s sobriety gives way to an eruption of violence that’s more chilling for being played largely off-camera. It also scores points for stopping short of tragedy.

While the restraint of the performances is a virtue, it also inhibits the dramatic vitality of the story, which vaguely recalls other recent indie dramas about risky sexual and emotional excursions, like Concussion and A Teacher. However, Bloom is a highly watchable presence. Ronah is warm and nurturing, even naive at times, but with a necessarily guarded side that gives her interesting notes of brittleness. And Menchaca injects enough gentleness into his high-anxiety, damaged-goods character study to make us invest in the guy’s growth. There’s also nuanced support from New York stage regulars Robins, Boutsikaris and Tobias Segal as another of Ronah’s fragile clients.

Zachary Galler’s camera frequently trails the actors from behind, finding odd framing angles that are both intimate and detached. Textured sound, Nick Carew's fluid editing and economic use of Simon Taufique’s pensive music also contribute to give the small-scale film an assured consistency of tone.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)

Production company: SLC Film Production, Rotor Film

Cast: Brooke Bloom, Marc Menchaca, Dennis Boutsikaris, Laila Robins, Tobias Segal, Roxanne Day, Ryan Homchick, Robert Longstreet

Director-screenwriter: Anja Marquardt

Producers: Anja Marquardt, Kiara C. Jones, Mollye Asher

Executive producers: Oren Moverman, Dax Phelan, Scott Ryan, James Su

Director of photography: Zachary Galler

Production designer: David Meyer

Music: Simon Taufique

Costume designer: Andrea Sundt

Editor: Nick Carew

Sales: Paradigm Agency

No rating, 90 minutes