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Knives And Skin

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Jun 20, 2019
'Knives And Skin'
'Knives And Skin'  

A group of high school students, parents, and law enforcement officers prepare to search the underbrush for a missing girl named Carolyn (Raven Whitley). Their instructions are to yell "I need a knife!" if they don't find her; if they do, they are supposed to cry out, "Give me some skin!" From this, it seems, the film draws its title, "Knives and Skins." But that's just surface-level stuff, and this movie has got loft, if not exactly depth. Take the third option that's provided during the hunt for the missing person: If they find Carolyn and she's in need of help, the code phrase is "Girls just wanna have fun!"

Like Laura Palmer from David Lynch's iconic series "Twin Peaks," Carolyn - or her disappearance, at any rate - proves to be the key to the entire town's strange undercurrents of comedy and horror. Her mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) is a lost soul; her best friends, including the theatrically-minded Charlotte (Ireon Roach), play in a band they call Bride of Darkness.

Unlike Laura Palmer, however, Carolyn was not the town's pulsating center of teen dissolution. Ironically enough, it's her innocence that gets her into trouble: She was with a school football team star named Andy (Ty Olwin) the night she went missing; though he didn't kill her, Andy did drive off and leave her alone by the lake, in a fit of anger that she changed her mind about having sex with him. Now wracked with guilt, Andy hides evidence and casts around for ways to help, bribing his grandmother with weed to phone emergency services with the helpful message, "She was alive when I left her."

Andy's mother suffers from mental illness and spends most of her time curled up on her bed, sleeping on a pillow covered with tinfoil. His out-of-work father (Tim Hopper) works parties as a clown and, between times, carries on an affair with the wife of the local sheriff; like a couple of teens themselves, the meet for furtive sex in a car. ("I really hate it when you take so long," she complains. "It's very hard on my carpal tunnel.")

The least crazy of the bunch is Andy's sister Joan (Grace Smith), who proves to be resourceful, fearless (except when a slightly older man tries to kiss her), and pragmatic, perhaps to a fault; she's not above selling vodka-soaked tampons to cheering classmates at football games or hawking her mother's unwashed dainties to perky middle-aged men. "Disgusting," her mother exclaims when Joan cops to this entrepreneurial practice. "I try not to judge," Joan responds. But then: "Your fingernails," her mother clarifies, "are disgusting!" Connection is the hardest thing for these people to achieve, evidently, and there's not a lot of evidence that they realize it or are even trying too hard to connect.

And yet, connections abound. Carolyn's corpse seems to move itself from place to place (sometimes by way of might be teleportation) and, on occasion, sing a pop ballad recast to a dramatic down-tempo (the film is stuffed with such renditions, from "We Got the Beat" to "Promises, Promises"), but at least she thinks, at one point, to send a text. Meantime, Lisa sniffs out Andy's guilt and, in her somewhat off-kilter way, pursues answers from him. Equally inappropriate is a teacher's romantic interest in one of his pupils. Meanwhile, two of Carolyn's friends make a spark to a lesbian relationship in study hall and spend the rest of the movie exchanging odd little gifts they store in even odder places. As for Charlotte, she ends up having a thing for a member of the football team - though not Andy, mind you, nor Jesse (Robert T. Cunningham), Joan's best friend and the team's costume-wearing mascot. (Costumes are a huge part of this group's identity... or search for same.)

Writer-director Jennifer Reeder aims high and takes things over the top, but it's an open question as to just where Reeder intended to draw the line between laughter and drama. The script is littered with obvious one-liners, but far more subtle and effective are the moments that seem to ebb and flow throughout the film, bordering on pathos and yet hilarious in execution. This is the stuff of cult classics.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

Frameline 2019

This story is part of our special report titled "Frameline 2019." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


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