Style edges out substance in this Lynchian high school noir about a missing girl’s impact on the citizens of her small American town.
Directed by Jennifer Reeder
From its promotional materials asking “Have you seen Carolyn Harper?” to its Angelo Badalamenti-inspired score to — well, most of its mise en scéne, writer/director Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin is veritably a valentine to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks television series (1990–1991; 2017) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me film (1992). Reeder isn’t shy about showing other influences, either, in this high school noir about how a teenage girl’s disappearance affects a small town. Viewers’ enjoyment of this film will likely vary depending on whether they find the many homages irritating or well developed.
The plot concerns Carolyn Harper’s (Raven Whitley) disappearance after her clandestine meeting with her school’s star male athlete, Andy (Ty Olwin). Though the film boasts a colorful array of troubled characters, the main focus is on three of Carolyn’s classmates — Andy’s sister Joanna (Grace Smith), who sells her spaced-out mother’s underwear for quick cash; Charlotte (Ireon Roche), a fashion-forward girl who is the target of bullying; cheerleader Laurel (Kayla Carter), whose sheriff father is in charge of Carolyn’s missing person case — and her single mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), whose behavior becomes evermore unpredictable the longer her daughter goes missing.
There is a great deal to unpack and admire in this film. For example, Reeder puts a strong feminist spin on the subgenre of quirky high school movies with Knives and Skin, with the main girl student characters standing up for themselves and putting boys who feel they are entitled, in regard to sex and other things, in their places. Surrounding these secure young women are adults battling so many pressures and demons that the students appear to be more grounded and together than their parents. A suddenly unemployed father has an extramarital affair while dressed in clown makeup (shown twice on screen, for good measure), for example. I’ll save Reeder’s myriad other peculiar surprises for first-time viewers. The film’s stronger points, though, for this reviewer, were often lost among the nods to not only Twin Peaks, but to other vehicles, as well. For example, characters including the school’s girls choir, led by Lisa, sing several beautifully arranged, somber versions of 1980s songs such as The Icicle Works’ “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream),” which instantly recalls Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” in Donnie Darko (2001).
I found the film engaging and entertaining throughout, but it borders on pastiche so much — and it never goes as full-out nuts as its chief influences, which makes things feel watered down or like “David Lynch lite” — that its powerful messages, compelling young female characters, and unique eccentricities often wind up taking a backseat to its style and presentation.
Knives and Skin screened at the Overlook Film Festival, which ran May 30–June 2 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is worth seeking out as it continues its film festival run, as it is already proving to be a divisive slice of cinema.