The textbook definition of “teen movie” has taken a sharp left turn in the past decade. Gone are the days of lighthearted slapstick comedies à la American Pie and Superbad, or the mushy romance films like She’s All That and Never Been Kissed, all of which hold their rightful places in the history of teen cinema. In recent years, films made for and marketed at teenagers have shifted to relay the feelings and frustrations of a very different generation than the ones that came before. Shows like Euphoria and films like Waves look to approach real, traumatic issues that affect a good portion of teenagers growing up in today’s social landscape. They aren’t any less funny or romantic or compelling, they’re just a hell of a lot more biting and leave much darker bruises than the old studio-produced mass media that came before them. Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin is a film along the lines of such new media while being nothing of the sort all at once. In fact, Knives and Skin isn’t really much like anything that has come before it, to its own simultaneous benefit and detriment.
When Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), a modestly-liked high schooler and member of the school marching band, goes missing overnight, a suburban town is forced to come to grips with the mortality of their own children, and the dark secrets held behind closed doors when the truth surrounding the circumstances of Carolyn’s disappearance are forced into the light. At the center of the drama are Carolyn’s three closest friends, Joanna Kitzmiller (Grace Smith), Charlotte Kurtich (Ireon Roach) and Laurel Darlington (Kayla Carter), who must deal with their dysfunctional family lives at the same time as the search for Carolyn.
The best way to describe Knives and Skin is to call it Twin Peaks meets Euphoria meets Only God Forgives, and that barely scratches the surface of what the film seeks to do. The film achieves an effect that’s wholly unique to itself, which is a much rarer thing to find in a film in 2019. It’s just such a shame that much of the film is bogged down with unnecessary filler and unnaturally forced “quirks,” taking you out of the more compelling aspects of the story and its filmmaking style.
Simply put, the film’s first act is generally kind of bad, which is not something I’m particularly happy to say. Relying heavily on the characters being acutely eccentric through one-liners and clever quips, Knives and Skin feels like it’s being far more clever than it actually is. We only experience the characters through their humor, humor that often feels undercooked. After a while, it becomes grating and grinds the film to a near excruciating halt.
But then, about halfway through the film, Knives and Skin takes a turn, one that almost saves the film from itself with one simple move: actually focusing on the film’s main plot. There are so many different irrelevant subplots involving the parents of the teenagers and their disturbing issues that add nothing, that when we actually return to the issue of Carolyn’s disappearance, we realize that Knives and Skin has the utmost ability to be compelling and unique in a genuine way. It’s not a perfect second-half by any means as it still suffers a bit from the issues that plagued the first half, but in comparison, it’s an entirely different film, a film that I wish I could’ve gotten the entire time. That, in itself, becomes the most frustrating part about Knives and Skin; I just want to go in and simply *tweak* the film to fill in the gaps of the compelling elements and remove the rest of the bullshit surrounding it.
However, Knives and Skin is a sensory treat from the get-go, treating the viewer to neon-drenched existentialism and trippy filmmaking styles à la David Lynch and Gaspar Noé, with the feminine softness of a Sofia Coppola film. Director Jennifer Reeder assembles a killer crew to craft an absolutely stellar visual experience from start to finish. It’s the sound that brings it to the next level, combining a Cliff Martinez-esque synth score to complement the neo-noir vibes of the film with an absolutely stunning (and I mean gobsmackingly stunning) choral soundtrack featuring the teenage actresses in their high school women’s choir performing arrangements of popular 1980s teen hits such as “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Promises, Promises,” “Blue Monday” and arguably the film’s shining moment, a heart-wrenchingly beautiful duet of “I Melt With You” performed by Kayla Carter and Emma Ladji. This is a sensory melding of visuals and soundtrack that complement an otherwise frustrating experience.
And that’s just what’s driving me absolutely *crazy* about Knives and Skin. I want to love it so much and there are so many elements in place to love, but there are also so many tonal issues, irrelevant and uninteresting subplots, and forced dialogue that make the film feel far more pretentious than it actually is. Its bizarre nature shouldn’t change, but if you’re going to tell a story in such a visually unique and linguistically quippy way, streamline the narrative to accommodate such a stylistic choice. It’s a film that doesn’t necessarily go on for too long, but it tries to focus on too much and loses sight of the things that make it so compelling.
Yet, there’s an argument to be made that Knives and Skin is essential viewing for the indie film buff, as its subversion of genre tropes and subtle homages to a bevy of different works before it is something to behold on a base level. It’s an outlandish take on surrealist art that fans of works like Twin Peaks will absolutely adore, even if it leaves viewers who are looking for something more akin to dark teen dramas such as The Virgin Suicides or Euphoria left out to dry. Knives and Skin ultimately becomes a sizzle reel of unique things to look forward to in Reeder’s career as a filmmaker going forward, even if the final product never comes together as a cohesive piece.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital December 6th, 2019.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.