(2019) Drama (Kino Lorber) Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill, Gail Bean, Drew Fuller, Ben Levin, Amani Starnes, Caroline Bloom, Ronald Woodhead, Becki Hayes, Joseph Rene, Katy Erin Donna Morrell Gafford, Jason Michael Hawkins, George Oliver Hale, Kay Salem, Kally Khourshid, Melissa Jo Bailey, Molly O’Leary, Amanda Joy Erickson. Directed by Shatara Michelle Ford
Sexual assault has been a widespread issue in this country for some time, but it has come into more focus since the advent of the #MeToo movement that brought to the attention of how many women were affected by sexual assault on social media. I remember watching in shock, horror and near-tears as family members and friend after friend posted #MeToo on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms, indicating that they had survived this most personal and cowardly of attacks.
Part of the problem is that the media tends to be overly salacious of the crime, rarely giving it the sober, stark treatment it deserves. With the advent of more women settling into the director’s chair, the time seems right for that issue to be addressed.
Renesha (Hall) is a beautiful, successful African-American woman working for a large corporation in Austin. However, she feels some dissatisfaction with the corporate lifestyle in general. On a girl’s night out with her friend Amber (Bean) and others, she meets up with Evan (Brill), a slightly sh*tfaced white young man who works as a tattoo artist and has no ambition whatsoever, but taken by the beauty and intelligence of Renesha, he works up enough liquor-fueled courage to get her number and call it. The two end up going out together, and sparks fly.
They end up moving in together. Evan convinces Renesha to give up her corporate job and follow her passion; she takes a job with the Humane Society. He works at home, creating his own tattoo studio. Things seem to be going really well.
Then on another girl’s night out, Renesha and Amber meet up with a couple of young white men who ply the two with drinks. Renesha wants to go home, but Amber convinces her to stay and drink and consume cannabis-laced edibles. It becomes clear that the boys have added a different drug to the mix as both Amber and Renesha become nearly unconscious.
When Renesha wakes up, it is in the bed of one of the white boys in a hotel room. She is dropped off – dumped – unceremoniously in the middle of the road near her house. Evan, out of his mind with worry, insists on taking Renesha to the hospital and having a rape kit done. Renesha would much rather take a long hot bath and go to bed but Evan is adamant. And their long, painful journey continues.
Ford has a definite voice and a definite style here; she begins the film at the moment of the sexual assault, giving us the point of view of Renesha – very dreamlike and confusing, before cutting away to the night she and Evan met. It is a bit confusing at first – you wonder if she’s meeting up with the man who’s about to rape her, but soon it becomes clear that it is not. Ford tells the story without sexualizing it; she doesn’t linger on Renesha’s body or show much of what transpires. If I have an issue with the sequence, the lead-up is a bit lengthy, although I think Ford is trying to make a point that the two African-American women were being groomed for sexual assault by two sexual predators who probably had done something like this many times before without consequence. There are guys like that out there, who think that this is natural, okay behavior – the ends justify the means.
There is also the subtext of the relationship with Evan. His behavior before the sexual assault seems sweet, but there is something going on below the surface; Renesha changes everything from her hair to her body – she adds dozens of tattoos, all Evan’s work – as well as her job and her residence. It can be argued that Renesha wanted a change to begin with, but it feels somewhat like she’s being manipulated and as women tend to do, seems to be trying to please the man she’s with perhaps to an extent that might be crossing the line into abuse. Certainly, Evan’s behavior after the assault reflects that he has an abusive side and may have all along.
There is also an indictment of the healthcare system as Evan hauls the unwilling Renesha from hospital to clinic looking for a rape kit to be performed and meeting obstacles all along the way, from systemic failures to incompetence. One is also left to wonder if Renesha had been white would she have been treated differently. Ford leaves no doubt as to how SHE feels.
Ford has the luxury of a terrific actress in the lead role. This is definitely Hall’s film and she runs with it. She’s one of those actresses who can communicate as much with a single glance as she can with a page full of dialogue. She has a good foil in Brill who has a role that is a bit mercurial and perhaps thankless, but he’s not the perfect boyfriend – which is a good thing – but he’s not an absolute jerk – which is also a good thing.
The one thing that really holds this movie back is the ending. It is abrupt and unsatisfying, feeling almost like Ford had just had enough of the story and packed things up. I don’t think the movie would have worked with a neat, tied-with-a-bow ending that resolves everything – the subject matter is far too complex for that. Still, the ending was so disappointing for me that my rating came down a full point to a point and a half because of it. That’s a shame because up until the last few minutes of the movie this was a movie whose praises were worthy of being sung but while I still recommend that you see the film, be aware that there is a caveat involved.
REASONS TO SEE: Hall delivers a powerful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending kind of just peters out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, sexual content and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Ford.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I May Destroy You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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