It’s confounding the lengths people will go to denigrate or dismiss the horror genre in favor of more populist genres like action, drama, or comedy. For generations, horror stories have been used as social warnings, explorations of loss, and even grief. Forget the elitist “art house” tag, horror is horror and there’s no reason for one story to be more or less than another simply because of the subgenre in which it lands. With the right story, cast, and director, any film contains the potential to elevate beyond expectations and certainly beyond the narrow view of what is or isn’t worthy. Enter Faye, written by director Kd Amond and lead actor Sarah Zanotti, a tale of horror universal yet precise and personal which is having its world premiere at the 52nd Nashville Film Festival.
Still recovering from a personal tragedy, self-help author and social media personality Faye Ryan (Zanotti) finds herself behind on her deadline for her latest book with her publisher growing restless. In order to try to gather her thoughts, she agrees to head to her publisher’s home in Louisiana for a week to try to get three chapters done with the alternative being Faye released from the label. Five days of solitude sound like the perfect way to loosen the thoughts in her head, enabling her to put pen to paper…except the quiet calls forth more than subdued thoughts, it calls the kind of self-reflection that threatens to shatter her already fractured existence.
In one of the audience-facing scenes, Faye references John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and how Michael Myers, described as “the Bogeyman,” scared her as a child. I found this mention amusing given the coincidence of just having watched the seminal horror film for the first time just two days prior to Faye. More notably, this reference perfectly encapsulates the type of film that Faye is. Traditionally, the Bogeyman is a creature that adults use to coerce children into good behavior: quiet, fearsome, and incredibly deadly. In Halloween, Michael Myers fits this description nearly to a tee as the killer specifically targeted his sister after she engaged in sexual activity (deemed improper teenage activity) instead of paying attention to him (which was her job/deemed proper behavior). In Amond and Zanotti’s story, there is no Michael Myers, but there is a looming specter, one which Faye must face if she’s going to make it out of the retreat alive. Hats off to Amond and Zanotti for their narrative approach. It may not seem gripping at first, but I challenge you to not feel filled with dread, to remain steeled off from Faye’s pain, from the slow realization that what haunts us from within is often more dangerous than from something external. Through all of this, catharsis is found for the story and the audience.
Let’s back up a moment before digging too deeply into the thematic nature of Faye’s storytelling and look at how the film is structured. The whole of Faye is staged with three overlapping pieces: us watching Faye, Faye speaking to us directly, and a segmentation of the overall narrative through a variation on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. The first part is a mix of traditional storytelling and non as Zanotti is the only actor we see for the whole of the film. We hear voices and see photographs, but the entirety of Faye rests on capable Zanotti who carries everything from start to finish. Given how the second piece is set-up to directly address the audience, there’s a feeling of a one-woman play permeating every frame and, to a degree, this is correct until the specter makes its appearance. When it does, Faye loses the play-like aspect and becomes something that’s only effectual on film. The first and second pieces interlock to make up for the weaknesses in their respective parts: the direct dialogue allows for exposition or deep thought which would be awkward to do on her own, while the indirect scene work creates the sense that we, the audience, are observing Faye at her most vulnerable. Horror offers an exploration of vulnerability and who is not more vulnerable than someone grieving. This brings us to the third piece, the five chapters which make up the film, each one inspired by a different Kübler-Ross stage. While it would be very possible to tell the story within Faye without chapter cards, making the conscious choice to use them enhances the storytelling by injecting brief breaks and moments of tonal relief. Zanotti and Amond designed Faye as acerbic despite the universal light and love her writing inspires in others and each of the title cards reflects this darker view. It is through the darkness that Faye must travel in order to have a chance at the light, something all horror tales dangle in front of the protagonist.
So let’s now return to the Bogeyman. This isn’t the only pop culture reference that Faye makes, but it makes sense to include as Faye is, herself, haunted by a shape until she is able to confront the specter head-on. It’s here that the staging of the first two pieces also becomes more clear to the audience: one of them being the private persona of Faye, while the other is the public persona (one dressed in all black, hair a natural brown versus a blonde-looking dolled-up presentation). The specter, for whatever shape it takes, is a metaphor for several things, but none so plainly as the battle within these personas and the value Faye ultimately places on herself. You can’t fight the Bogeyman, you can only survive it. Carried by Zanotti’s immense performance, Faye transforms from the average psychological thriller into a painful, arduous, and profound exploration of grief by those left behind.
Movies are, by and large, viewed as a distraction, a thing you do when all the other things in the day are done. For people such as myself, movies are a lens by which to experience the world, to feel less alone as we engage in the art others have created. To tell you the number of times in my life I’ve thought that I’d prefer to go first before EoM editor Crystal Davidson, I’m not sure there is a known number so high. The thought of living in a world without her shine, her energy, her innate goodness would be too difficult to bear. She possesses a strength I could never imagine having and, in watching Amond and Zanotti’s work, for a fleeting moment, I felt understood in this fear of continuing without her. For the briefest of moments, I felt calm and understood, the greatest gift any film can offer its audience. The pain on display is authentic, the performance natural, and the staging immersive in this brief tale of dread. But there is also hope to bring you back with a wry smile and a knowing glance. Life goes on, no matter how much our grief makes us want to stop it all in its tracks, and we’re all the better for it. As Faye implies, to be stuck in our grief is to be stuck in time, caught in an endless loop of pain, shackled by own our fear of a life continued. Break the chains, Zanotti and Amond seem to suggest, your story is not over yet.
Screening during the 2021 Nashville Film Festival.
World Premiere Sunday, October 3rd at 9:30 PM at Rocketown.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.