Bitch (2017)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/06/17 12:19:53
SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 19: The biggest issue with "Bitch" is not that it's a relatively-straight take on an idea that is generally played as a silly fantasy; that's something that filmmaker Marianna Palka and her cast do fairly well. It's unnerving at times, but in the way it's supposed to be, and even the fact that Palka paints her way into a corner story-wise isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you wind up in corners. But there comes a point where she seems to wind up stuck doing the things that are beneath the ambition otherwise on display, and I don't know if anyone watching this film would want that conventionality.The set-up is kind of conventional: Jill (Palka) is the stay-at-home wife to Bill Hart (Jason Ritter), looking after their three kids while he works long hours and has a thing on the side with Annabelle (Sol Rodriguez), always with a reason why Jill can't take some sort of break. One day, as she's at a breaking point, a dog catches her eye and she almost seems to fall into a trance. The next morning, that dog bursts out of her bedroom, and the woman left behind is on all fours, barking, and snapping at anyone who comes near. Although Jill's sister Beth (Jaime King) is willing to help, they can't keep Jill locked in the basement long-term, despite the way Bill's pride won't acknowledge this as a problem he can't handle, even if he is risking his career and making a fool of himself trying to learn how to be an actual parent on the fly.
That dog running out of the house gives a brief impression that maybe Bitch is going for an uncomfortably realistic body-swap, and although it might be interesting to see someone try that angle, Palka dispenses with that fairly quickly; reversing some sort of supernatural event would probably not show the sort of growth in Bill that Palka is looking for. Instead, she takes the tropes of that sort of movie as a starting point and plays it as disturbing rather than funny, as Jill takes on the persona of a feral dog rather than a family pet, complete with biting and just crapping on the floor and making a mess. If this break was brought on by a yearning for a dog's easy life or freedom, then being locked in the basement is an especially cruel irony, although it's a sharp commentary on how poorly most people handle mental illness, which gives a little more edge to the inevitable scene where Bill and Beth have to run through the neighborhood calling Jill's name, which does not play like a funny dog-thing-but-with-a-person bit.
The trouble with that sort of realism, though, is that it inevitably leads to Palka more or less erasing Jil as a factor in the story. As much as she clearly has great sympathy for her character, the story is built so that Jill's breakdown functions as something that forces Bill to be a better man and a more attentive father. That's absolutely an important part of what needs to happen, but it perhaps shouldn't be the entirety, and reducing Jill to a plot device in Bill's story is not great when not having much if any autonomy was part of her problem. The same goes for the movie shuffling her out of sight when not long earlier Palka had been saying that shutting her in the basement and hoping she gets better on her own isn't the solution. It makes sense for the plot, but it feels wrong, and the filmmakers never quite figure out what to do with Jill once her breakdown has kicked the story off. Or, for that matter, the kids; they often play more like nuisances than people who might be traumatized by what's happening; even the fifteen-year-old daughter has very few moments when she can become more helpful than dependent or even be starkly terrified because this may be what's waiting for her as she becomes an adult woman.
This middle-of-the-road approach finds itself reflected in the actors' performances, too (except for Palka; she throws herself right into Jill). Jason Ritter starts out interesting, making Bill a bit self-aware of his boyish charm, but he too-quickly veers toward the guy who is kind of funny in his cluelessness, and it mutes his later scenes a bit; getting from a genuinely selfish and more persistently resentful Bill to a decent one would be more interesting. Jaime King, meanwhile, hits a lot of the expected beats as the helpful aunt and jumps to angry well when Bill does something particularly stupid, but there's something missing. Throughout the movie, everybody seems properly worried but seldom does any character seem unnerved, like this is something truly weird rather than just an unusual problem to solve.And that's the crux of it: This movie seems like it should seem a lot weirder and unsteadying than it actually is. It's better at putting the audience in an uncomfortable place than the usual PG-rated family film where some sort of transformation teaches everyone a lesson, but it loses the sharp edge too early, and never quite recovers enough to be better than pretty decent.
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