Knives and Skin, Jennifer Reeder’s feature-length debut as a writer-director, is a creepy coming-of-age tale of girlhood, loss, and consent set in small-town America where the disappearance of a teenage girl tilts an already off-balance community even more on edge. Marching band member Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) has decided to lose her virginity to jock Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), but when she suddenly changes her mind, he becomes angry, pushes her to the ground, and leaves her in the woods. When she doesn’t come home, her mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), quickly goes off the deep end, obsessed with her daughter’s clothes and smell. Fellow marching band members Charlotte Kurtich (Ireon Roach), April Martinez (Aurora Real de Asua), and Afra Siddiqui (Haley Bolithon), each of whose identities lie firmly outside old-fashioned mainstream America’s idea of girlhood, are preparing for homecoming, but Carolyn’s situation has cast a damper over everything.
Reeder focuses on two families over the course of the film, which was inspired by the work of such feminist auteurs as Chantal Akerman and Catherine Breillat in addition to such indie faves as Todd Solondz and Todd Haynes, with the heaviest debt to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as she uses our generic societal anxiety about female teen sexuality to reveal the hidden underbelly of a typical midwestern town, complete with surreal moments. (There’s also bits of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mean Girls, and The Breakfast Club embedded in its DNA.) Andy’s mother, Lynn (Audrey Francis), can’t face reality; his father, Dan (Tim Hopper), is an out-of-work clown fooling around with pregnant waitress Renee Darlington (Kate Arrington); his sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to the principal (Tony Fitzpatrick); and he is closest to his unusual grandmother (Marilyn Dodds Frank). Renee is married to Doug (James Vincent Meredith), the local sheriff in charge of the Carolyn Harper case; their son, Jesse Darlington (Robert T. Cunningham), is the school mascot and friends with Joanna; and their daughter, Laurel Darlington (Kayla Carter), is exploring her sexuality with Colleen (Emma Ladji). Racism, misogyny, sexual harassment, bullying, and more lie at the center of a community unable to come to grips with what’s really going on every day.
Cinematographer Christopher Rejano bathes the film in richly saturated blues, reds, greens, and pinks, accompanied by a lurking score by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. There are several scenes that feature hauntingly beautiful a cappella versions of such 1980s hits as Modern English’s “I Melt with You,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” the Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed,” Naked Eyes’ “Promises, Promises,” and Icicle Works’ “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream),” lending the film a stark poignancy that overrides some of the inconsistent acting and over-the-top absurdities and singlehandedly makes it worth watching. Knives and Skin is screening in the Midnight section of the Tribeca Film Festival on May 2 at 8:00.