Reactions to trauma are specific to each person and situation. No two people respond to a harrowing event in the exact same fashion because the human experience and each person’s perception of the world around them is so unique. When a tight-knit group of friends and family go through a crisis together, but have differing views on how to express themselves in the wake of the incident, conflict arises. In the narrative of the film What She Said, this discord becomes even more troublesome when certain members of a group who have experienced the trauma from a secondary perspective attempt to dictate the response of the person who endured the trauma directly. This comes from a place of love, but as we all know, love can be messy. Director Amy Northup and screenwriter/lead actress Jenny Lester compose a portrait of this phenomenon that is equal parts devastating and inspiriting.
It is important to go ahead and provide a content warning for this film, as What She Said deals heavily with the subject of sexual assault, which may be triggering for some viewers. Jenny Lester acts in the lead role of Sam, a young woman pursuing her PhD. She is extremely intelligent and talented, and under normal circumstances, she would be focused on navigating this pivotal juncture in her life as she vaults from academia into a career on the other side of school. While this can be a rather stressful time for someone, it can also be a time of hope and optimism for the future. Tragically, the past year of Sam’s life has been plagued by the aftermath of a sexual assault, which has affected her on horrific mental, emotional, and physical levels. Finding peace anywhere is not easy for her right now. She tells her brother, Eli (Britt Michael Gordon), that she has decided to drop charges against her abuser. It is at this point that Eli brings together a small group of their friends and family to gather for the Thanksgiving holiday, of course looking to provide Sam with support and comfort, but also hoping to convince her to continue with her pursuit of justice. This is where the friction really begins to take hold.
There are moments in this film that elicit anger in the viewer in unexpected ways, anger at the character of Eli and the others who have involved themselves in this intervention. Why do they think they have the right to tell Sam how to approach her healing journey? While this ordeal has been a nightmare for them as well, they are ultimately observing this from the outside looking in. They have such a deep love for Sam that they have perhaps overstepped in their attempts to show it. This is a very honest illustration of love, in all its misguided passion and chaos. Love moves in bizarre waves of emotion. None of this is romanticized or made to appear glamorous in What She Said. It is real and human. The cast of this film is relatively small, but each actor is provided with fleshed out characters in the script. They take the great material on the page and breathe life into it. Jenny Lester, Britt Michael Gordon, Juliana Jurenas, Peter Evangelista, Paige Berkovitz, Jarielle Whitney, Christopher Mychael Watson, and Lucas Calzada all bring precisely what is required from their respective roles to the screen.
Indeed, from a narrative standpoint, this film gets awfully bleak, but there is a warm, cozy feel to the cinematography (Alexa Wolf) and production design (Becky Lee Morgan). The majority of the film is set in and around Sam’s family cabin tucked away in the woods. The scenery is lit with the pale sunlight of late November streaming through the trees, or the orange glow of a fireplace bouncing off the walls of the comfy wood-paneled cabin. But, everybody within the cabin is filled with anxiety and distress. There is a heavy air of tension hanging in the atmosphere, even as the company gathers for coffee and pumpkin pie. It feels like the artificial bubble of contentment could burst at any moment. However jovial it all appears on the surface is only half of the true story.
The direction from Amy Northup in her feature film directorial debut possesses a distinctive confidence that some filmmakers do not find until much later in their careers. She is in tune with everyone on set and everything in the script. This was a very delicate story to tell for a first-time director. While the narrative in What She Said is fictional, the themes are all too relevant and reflective of many events in the real world. I applaud Northup and Lester for their courage in tackling such difficult subject matter, and also for not shying away from the notion that love amongst family and friends can be a mess. A well-intentioned, beautiful mess that is impossible to accurately define in a one-size-fits-all manner. Sometimes, the best way to show love is to simply listen. Other times, love requires words and action. However it looks and however we approach it, it is constantly evolving, and we should aim to evolve with it.
Available on VOD September 14th, 2021.
For more information, head to 1091 Pictures’s What She Said website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.