Have you seen Carolyn Harper? That’s the horrid question that thumps in the hearts of the characters in the trippy teen-noir Knives and Skin. It was another quiet night in a Midwest small town when band geek Carolyn Harper went missing. Her pom-pommed shako cap will be found near a river that keeps silent on the secret of that night. But as her friends and family search for clues — or her corpse — the fragile façade of normalcy and pleasantry is shattered. In its place come boundary-pushing flirtations, uncomfortable parent-child confrontations, a mounting dread of mortality, and a string of acapella musical numbers, thoughtfully plucked from a catalog of ’80s classics.
Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder, Knives and Skin is not about the mystery of what happened to Carolyn (Raven Whitley). That’s answered for the audience in the opening sequence. Instead, it’s about what happens to those hit by her absence. Her mother Lisa Harper (Marika Engelhardt) is introduced in near hysterics as she smashes into Carolyn’s room, a place still littered with the debris of childhood, doll houses and pretty pink trinkets, but missing one defiant daughter. In a desperate bid to feel closer to her girl, Lisa wears Carolyn’s formal dresses to work and search parties, as if their corseted bodices will hold together her broken heart. Lisa hunts for her daughter’s scent like a bloodhound, following it across football fields and into backseats that stink of sweat and regret. But hers is just one portrait of pain within the film.
Knives and Skin makes a symphony of how its characters cope. Some seek comfort in illicit sex. Others carry secrets in the form of a hidden pillow or mementos slick with the ooze of lust. Some seek control through snatched panties and shady deals with powerful figures. And all will seek solace or salvation through song. It begins in a music class, where a choir of female students sings a hymn-like rendition of The Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Modern English’s “I’ll Melt With You” and Naked Eyes’ “Promises Promises” will be similarly stripped down in increasingly surreal musical numbers, where even the dead sing along. Familiar songs are made strange, and the effect is enchanting, as if the film is casting a spell.
This symphony of story unfurls motifs of grief, peer pressure, first love, insecurity, and small town ennui with a dizzying collision of tones that makes Knives and Skin feel like Degrassi had a torrid, trashy affair with John Waters. There’s an aching tenderness with an irreverent comic edge to the blossoming romance between two closeted teens. Ireon Roach brings a hard-earned angst, bristling defiance, and captivating charm as a misfit musician with a passion for fashion and a reluctant crush on a dashing football player. Reminiscent of Anna Kendrick, Grace Smith offers a sharp snarkiness as a smart girl with big dreams and a deeply troubled home life. Other teens turn in performances that might be described as fluffy or wooden. But each adds a distinct texture to Reeder’s layered look a small town life.
As for the parents, each is a caricature of adult-catastrophe. Engelhardt brings a pointed theatricality as the ferociously lonely single-mom. Female frustration over the constraints of the nuclear family is explored in dueling portraits. Depressive and oft despondent, Audrey Francis plays a wife and mother who has made a uniform out of a t-shirt she claims to hate, and a prison out of the bed she refuses to leave. By contrast, Kate Arrington plays a manic, pregnant waitress who wields heart-shaped pancakes, glitter pens, and forced smiles with an unnerving intensity. Then Tim Hopper plays a deadbeat dad who is an actual clown, taking dad jokes and the painted-on expression to its ludicrous extreme. Each proves a silly yet scathing satirizing of society, its rules, repressions, and hollow promises of protection.
With interweaving storylines, a cacophonic mix of performance styles, and tone that snaps from earnest drama to absurd comedy and back again, Knives and Skin refuses its audience the chance to get comfortable. Reeder even works in a mind-bending temporal slipperiness, with costumes and dialogue clues hinting at a nonlinear timeline. All this is not a glitch, but by design. We are enveloped by the collisions of overwhelming emotions of its ensemble, experiencing the rush of a first kiss hard after the blow of rejection, the hope in a school dance, the confusion of a mentor proven horrid. Our sense of time is warped, just like when emotional trauma may make days feels less distinct and more like a smudge of hurt. In short, Reeder fills Knives and Skin with bold choices. And while they will not work for everyone, I found her work captivating in its oddness, ambition, and emotional resonance.
Upon reflection, Reeder didn’t make a film, but a fireworks display. Bursts of style and emotion streak across a cold, dark backdrop of mortality. Streaks of neon lighting, bold face paint, and bright pink subtitles all dazzle. Love and hope, fear and agony, regret and resilience explode in glorious, loud, primal, and unapologetic spectacle. Then, in the end, there’s blackness and silence. The blank theater screen is the empty night’s sky, leaving us alone with the excitement and emotion still rattling in our ribcages and pulsing in our veins.
Knives and Skin makes its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com