Like J. Alfred Prufrock, I really have no idea how to proceed, but I’ll start with this; Blame is an accomplished, fully realized narrative. If you love layered storytelling that turns on a dime, then this film should be up your alley. There’s a ton of reasons I’m enamored with Blame, but let’s start with the obvious . . .
It’s amazing to think that, at 22, Quinn Shephard wrote, directed, acted, produced, and edited this accomplished teen drama. But age is sometimes just a number, and the most impressive feat isn’t Quinn’s creative precociousness. Though first impressions may lead us to believe this is a battle of wills between two girls, Blame’s refreshingly shifting focus welcomes viewers to see an even bigger picture.
Abigail (Quinn Shephard) is an 11th grader who’s returning to school from an extended hiatus. Dubbed “Sybil” by several of her downright mean classmates, Abigail’s fragile state is readily apparent. Melissa (Nadia Alexander), a cheerleader with a gothic/punk rock flair, is the ringleader of the mean crew that make Abigail’s life a living hell (Alexander won Best Actress at the Tribeca Film Festival for her work in Blame).
Substitute teacher Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina) sheds a bit of sunlight into Abigail’s life after he introduces Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to the class. Sensing potential in Melissa’s abilities, Jeremy gradually bonds with his introverted student, infuriating Melissa in the process. The plan is to perform various scenes from The Crucible for a school production, and with all the world being a stage, the evolving dynamic among the trio play out in oftentimes heartbreaking form.
That’s the “in a nutshell” premise of Blame, and if you’re expecting a bit of seduction, sex, and mean girl confrontations in the flick, you won’t be disappointed. These are well worn tropes that we’ve come to expect miles before they hit the screen, but Blame takes these conventions and brings an entirely fresher spin to the proceedings.
For example, the sexuality in Blame is not one that’s shot for pure titillation. An extended sequence between Melissa, her best friend (and fellow cheerleader) Sophie (Sarah Mezzanotte) and their two boyfriends seems extraneous upon first blush, but Shephard ultimately uses this sequence to move the story forward. Lesser storytellers would have interspersed the scene as either a necessary evil (to draw more viewers looking for some sensual excitement) or to show off their cinematic skills. We’ve been accustomed to sex scenes via the male gaze, and oftentimes they work with the right dudes behind the camera (here’s looking at you Wong Kar Wai!!). The sex in Blame serve, and most importantly add, to the entire story.
Shephard understands that sexuality is just one aspect of a character – there is so much more lying beneath the surface. But within that space, there is definite joy, lust, and possible disillusionment amidst the requisite gesticulation of bodies. The people who inhabit Shephard’s world feel like real humans and our personal allegiances with some of the characters will undoubtedly change once we gain a deeper knowledge of what the heck is really going on.
Shephard has been working on Blame since she was 15, and it’s easy to see her complete immersion in the project by not going for the easy targets. The story could have been a cautionary tale about the destructive nature of social media, bullying, or even spotlight the perils of a potential teacher-student relationship.
Instead, Shephard opts for the “keep it simple stupid” path which, ironically, often is the hardest road to take. By mainly focusing on the characters and devoting a ton of care to the people who inhabit Blame, she delivers a well told story without depending on all that thematic clutter. Though these themes may circle around the story’s universe, they are subtle ingredients within the final mix.
If Blame gets the attention it rightfully deserves, the picture will be feted for the standout performances of Shephard and Alexander. Both actresses are electric, and while it would also have been for them to chew the scenery with such well developed characters, their work, like much of the film, is refreshingly grounded in reality.
The biggest creative stroke that absolutely won me over was something that completely came out of the blue. Ellie Redgrave (Tessa Albertson) is Sophie’s close friend who, just like Abigail, is a bit of an introvert. Most teen dramas would have had Ellie as background dressing to the overall narrative, but instead Shephard gives Ellie her own story for us to follow. David Bowie once sang that “we can be heroes for one day,” and Blame definitely follows suit. Ultimately Ellie has an important role in the overall events that transpire, and like most of the storyline, her decision making is refreshingly unpredictable.
Blame, just like The Strange Ones, exists as participant cinema by not spelling everything out for us in one fell swoop. Important incidents happen off screen and back stories are not fully explained, and it’s up to us to fill in the gaps. A novelist once told me that his book isn’t finished until it’s released, as he considers the readers the ultimate collaborators in his story. I have no idea if Shephard subscribes to this theory, but there is a world that was created in Blame that keeps growing way past the end credits.
It’d be wonderful if, somewhere down the road, Shephard returns to these characters. These people, and their choices, continue to swirl around my head days after viewing this knockout of a flick, and I’m hoping it has the same effect on many a cinephile.
Blame Rating: 4.5 out of 5
***Blame hits theaters and VOD January 5, 2018 and I’ll be discussing the film with my good buddy Anderson Cowan on CinemAddicts. For more info, check out the flick’s official Facebook Page.