Mean Girls

(Writer-director Quinn Shephard’s Blame is available now on VOD and iTunes via Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Writer-director Quinn Shephard’s Blame is as much of a psychological study as it is a film. Quinn presents us with a handful of characters with distinct personality traits as if asking us to dissect their behavior.

At the forefront is Abigail Grey (Quinn Shephard). She has the unique habit of becoming a character from whatever book she is reading. At the beginning of Blame, that character is Laura Wingfield from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, a play she is reading for a high school class. Abigail wears 1940s clothing, collects glass figurines, and walks with a limp. Similar to Laura, Abigail seems to be isolated from the outside world, thanks in no small part to some sort of mental instability. The symbolic appearance of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil and the cruel nickname of “Sybil” spewed by her classmates suggest that Abigail has some sort of dissociative identity disorder which caused her to be sent away from school for six months. Maybe Abigail became Sybil while she was reading Schreiber’s novel, or this tendency to take on the personality of fictional characters is a symptom of her dissociative identity disorder. Either way, Abigail is a mesmerizing and enigmatic character who adds a novel complexity to Blame.

Perceived as weak, the alpha students choose to make Abigail’s reentry into high school as challenging as possible, which aids in her full emersion into the character of Laura. The crimson-haired Melissa (Nadia Alexander) leads the charge to torture Abigail, especially when she senses that Abigail is garnering the attention and admiration of others. Shephard provides us with several clues that Melissa desires attention, from her brightly colored hair and provocative attire to the bedroom striptease she does in front of a webcam. Like most bullies, Melissa is revealed to be lacking in confidence and manipulates the people around her to gain their unwavering support.

Abigail’s tendency to become fictional characters continues when her class switches to read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The change in reading material occurs when a substitute teacher, Jeremy (Chris Messina), takes over the class. When Jeremy shows favoritism towards Abigail, choosing her to play her namesake in an upcoming student production of Miller’s play, Melissa becomes even more fixated on destroying Abigail. Abigail immediately begins dressing like her character and evolves into a youthful seductress. Once Jeremy decides to play the role of John Proctor, it becomes clear that things will not end well. Whether or not it is on purpose, Abigail and Jeremy end up recreating Abigail and John Proctor’s backstory from The Crucible; while Melissa, as the Abigail understudy, adopts the witch-hunting tactics from The Crucible in her newfound crusade against Jeremy.

A failed actor, Jeremy struggles with a severe lack of self-confidence. Perceiving his new teaching role as an example of his lack of ambition, Jeremy’s girlfriend (Trieste Kelly Dunn) expresses her disappointment in his recent life choices, but Jeremy is much too passive to fight back. Being a high school teacher forces Jeremy to adapt to a position of power and respect. He subtly appears to feed off his ability to control the students, just as he enjoys Abigail’s attention and admiration. Messina and Shephard deserve credit for not relying upon traditional stereotypes of a pedophile. That is not to say they intend to justify Jeremy’s actions, but they do provide the audience with a solid understanding of what prompts his behavior as well as his internal struggle in the aftermath.

Blame may not be an entirely faithful adaptation of The Crucible, but it does similarly utilize the sexual intensity of teenagers to wreak havoc upon their world. Shephard wrote the script while still in high school, and Blame reveals that the 22-year-old writer-director is still familiar enough with the complexities of teenage sexuality to drench the film in riveting authenticity. For the most part, the actors look, act, and speak like real teenagers. In Blame, bullying comes in many flavors, including gossip, lies, nicknames, peer pressure, and social ostracism. Shephard makes it clear that the teens should not shoulder all of the blame, because absent, indifferent, or aloof parents are doing more exacerbate the problems than they seem to understand.

What is most interesting about Blame, however, is the way Shephard captures how their newly discovered sexuality enflames the “catty” competitive nature of the girls, and at times it seems as though their competitiveness is perpetuated by sub-conscious desires, rather than consciously intentional. These are the types of details that are typically missing whenever men write and direct female-centric stories, which is why we need more writer-directors like Shephard to present their perspectives.

– Don Simpson (@thatdonsimpson)


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