Trigger Warning: S/A is a central feature of the film, along with the trial and survival process. Additionally, those with photosensitivities should be aware of scenes with strobing.
Every day, being a woman gets harder and harder. If their rights aren’t being violated, removing their right to privacy (medical or physical), then someone else is trying to figure out how to commodify them. Lipstick is sold to make them look like they’re sexual aroused, while pockets are removed from clothing so as to reduce any chance that they might sow seeds of sedition. Women are to look sexy yet modest, demure yet vivacious. This assault doesn’t wait to start until they’re past the adolescent phase, it begins almost immediately post-womb with people identifying “boyfriends” or applying some kind of specific outfit. There’s a loss of autonomy once birthed that doesn’t stop until death. This violence is the pulpy bleeding heart of co-writer/director Del Kathryn Barton’s Blaze, a fierce and frequently surreal drama depicting the loss of innocence for one young girl, having its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2022.
After stopping in for an ice cream at a corner store, 12-year-old Blaze (Julia Savage), lost in her music, finds herself walking in an alley behind two people. Something about their conversation catches her attention and, when it turns physical, Blaze tries to hide around a shift in the wall. From there, she watches as a man (John Lawson) assaults and murders a woman (Yael Stone). After, she becomes a witness for the prosecution, yet her struggles between reality and her imagination make it difficult for her to be the kind of character witness that can achieve justice. Forced into an emotional journey she wanted nothing to be a part of, Blaze must understand her dissociation, her fear, her inconsolable rage if she’s going to be able to move on.
Blaze is the first feature-length film from Barton, one she co-wrote with first-time feature screenwriter Huna Amweero (Bo Mi). Her prior works share a similar idiosyncratic, surrealist bend, the shorts involving an animated adaptation of an Oscar Wilde story, The Nighingale and the Rose (2015), or a mother who takes the form of a redback spider that eats her partner after sex. Though this reviewer hasn’t seen them, the premise and images convey a strong similarity to Barton’s Blaze, featuring striking images of human-made barbarism and artistic imagination. Blaze is one assault after another, not in the literal sense of violence that serves as the emotional catalyst for the film, but in the way that Blaze, as a character, is rendered over and again until she becomes something new. Barton and Amweero’s film, though filled with inventive creativity, is unpleasant by design, showing what it’s like to be a woman in the world, their bodies absent agency when it suits someone else’s agenda or needs. That dissociation isn’t the default of women speaks to their strength and resilience; the mixture of surrealist and straightforward imagery highlighting the daily battles waged simply by breathing. What’s particularly intriguing about Blaze is that the script infers that Blaze has experienced some kind of trauma since the start as the film opens with a young, perhaps toddler Blaze, sitting in a Black Box room with colorful surreal art on the walls, a milk bottle laying on its side next to her. The paintings are varied in subject, but do involve women, in various states of disarray, with at least one having more than two breasts. She seems soothed by the paintings, a direct contrast to the state of isolation she appears to be in (perhaps signified by the spilled milk no one is addressing). The art grants Blaze peace, something which would be comforting to know if not for the tunnel Barton sends the audience down built entirely of cherries and cherry blossoms. There is little subtlety within Blaze and the film benefits from it as the moments when it is present are confusing enough to throw uncertainty into the mix, impacting the core narrative elements of the film.
From my read (and I’m aware my cis-maleness may color the reaction), the whole of Blaze is about a girl coming of age, making the transition from naïve innocence into adulthood, the innocence represented by the fantasy realm she (and we) frequently visits, but rather than it being a thing of victory, a moment of self-empowerment, it’s an event that strips her of agency. More than that, it’s Blaze seeing how she is part of a larger group of women who are changed, not broken, by the violence of others. There are three moments when make this aspect particularly clear, only two which will be addressed here. Both I will mention take place during the altercation between the man and the woman. The first is when Stone’s woman is trying to get away from the man and she makes eye contact with Blaze. In this moment, the woman shifts her tactics, visibly to us, in order to lead the man away from where Blaze is, trying to protect her as well as herself. The second is the reverse shot that takes place soon after, the camera slowly descending upon Stone’s woman while it lifts up from Blaze, both women starring up at the sky. Despite their differing locations and experiences, they are immediately connected in the worst possible way. It’s horrifying and stomach-turning in the way the script, the actor’s blocking, and Jeremy Rouse’s cinematography captures the whole sequence, capturing the incident with as much respect to Blaze and the woman as can be afforded while keeping the truth of the violation maintained.
What’s difficult to understand is the often esoteric elements of the film, even if they include some truly brilliant conceptual ideas. Before Blaze is in the alley, she’s at home, changing her socks, manipulating the space between her toes, and getting ready to leave the house. Something she does throughout the film, we see her do in this scene first: tie a string around her finger. This is an act typically assigned to remembering something, except it never seems to have that connection here. Instead, based upon my experience with Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD with my eldest son, the changing of socks, the toes, and tying of string feel more akin to a sensory-seeking behavior. Even as Blaze travels in and out of facilities to help with her psychological care, this sensory-seeking is never addressed. Similarly, though there are little hints of the dragon living in her room which Blaze herself sees and finds care within. Made of various fabric materials, craft foam, sequins, and other DIY materials, it doesn’t make itself known to us, the audience, until after the incident. The hint we receive early on is presented as colorful reflected light upon Blaze’s face, so its full appearance is a tad confusing. Then there are the figurines that Blaze has, a veritable army of porcelain that watches over her, set two-by-two in a glass case. These figurines become prominent throughout her imaginative visions, yet their specific meaning is unclear. Do they represent pairing, something which she does not have as the only adult in her life is her father (played by The Mentalist’s Simon Baker)? Do they represent conformity? Or are they representative of a compulsory behavior common among the SPD and ADHD community? Later, she screams at her father regarding the things that she needs, including among them a friend that we don’t meet until well into the film. These feel like small things, except there is such specificity in the make-up, design, and structure of the segments that are more fantastical that the lack of concreteness in some elements makes them feel more like distractions.
Whether in reality or in fantasy, Blaze only works if we believe in Blaze herself. In her theatrical release debut, Savage is the fulcrum from which the entire films succeeds or fails. Similarly aged as her character, Savage brings a ferocity to the role that only the inept or ignorant would believe to be unnecessary for a woman of any era. It’s not that Blaze herself is devastating figure, it’s that what she goes through as witness to shared pain to part of the survivor collective requires depths so unrealistic that the character requires someone who can keep Blaze grounded even when lost in fantasy.
If a film like Blaze makes you uncomfortable, then you’re a part of the world which recognizes that we need to do more than train women in vigilance and self-preservation. We need to do a better job of raising men to view women as humans, not objects. On June 12th, a report came up of a rape victim who’s been ordered to pay child support to her rapist after he discovered that she conceived a child and won 50/50 custody. Do not say that this is right or just. As the rollback of privacy rights continue to erode in the United State, the brazenness by which some men choose to exist only grows (see: White Nationalists arrested for planning riot at Idaho Pride event). There are no justifiable reasons to explain away why any abuser has the right to inflict violence upon another human. Least of which is because they feel their right to pleasure overrides someone else’s right to bodily autonomy. Amid the glitter, sequins, and fantastical sequences, there resides within Blaze a burning fire that rages at the audacity of humankind to take what isn’t theirs. Thankfully, Barton and Amweero crafted a story that outright states that survivors are not diminished, less-than, or broken from their experiences, offering resonant catharsis for all.
Screening during the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Blaze Tribeca film page.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.