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Knives and Skin
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by Jay Seaver

"The kids are... well, doing better than their parents."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There are brief moments when "Knives and Skin" seems to be pushing itself to become a little more mysterious and fantastical than it is, lest it seem too simple, but writer/director Jennifer Reeder has a good handle on how to use that surrealism to perk up audience interest and make the quirk go down a little easier without having it be the movie's whole thing. It's a tricky bit of alchemy, but one she manages.

It opens with a hook-up gone wrong, as Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) leads Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin) to a secluded spot only to have a change of heart, angering Andy. That's the last time anyone sees her alive, although her body doesn't exactly stay in one place. Carolyn's mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), also the school's chorus teacher, immediately becomes a wreck, although her band-mates think it's kind of par for the course, while several students assumed to be Carolyn's friends say they haven't been close in a while. Meanwhile, preparations start for homecoming, a substitute teacher catches the fancy of Andy's sister Joanna (Grace Smith), and the kids' parents are generally not in great shape themselves.

Carolyn's disappearance is where the audience first starts watching these people, but it's not exactly the focus of the movie; though the various families have connections to it, this is mainly a way for Reeder to tie a number of small, but compelling storylines together without having too many of them become overwrought and off-putting. One never forgets Carolyn, but there's a moment early on where the cute substitute teacher mentions that a girl disappeared in high school, but can't remember her name when pressed. The Kitzmillers and Darlingtons have their own drama going on, her bandmate Colleen (Emma Ladji) is more concerned with the football player who likes her even though she's very much, in her mind, not someone who dates jocks and so on. That secrets come out now is somewhat incidental.

And that's kind of a relief. Though it's been a while since I've lived in a small town (and even longer since high school), Reeder's take on how they work seems more authentic than most. Everyone knows each other, but circles are loose rather than rigid in most cases. Knives and Skin may be in large part about isolation, but the teenagers in question are seldom truly alone. Things aren't necessarily easy for them - Joanna telling her best guy friend that sometimes being mean is all girls have establishes where some of them stand right off the bat - but the teenagers seldom seem as desperate as the adults, and the confidence they show is tremendously appealing.

It's an appealing young cast, in large part because every one of them gets a chance to be abrasive but also to make that a part of a whole personality and each one part of an ensemble. Grace Smith's Joanna seems closest to the center of things, but she doesn't become the movie's star, and there's a certain care to make sure that her sarcasm and self-awareness doesn't make her a scene-stealer that the audience likes more than everyone else, but is instead armor of questionable strength (though she does get to spend the most time working with Audrey Francis, whose mentally ill mother stands out among the adults). Kayla Carter is a standout as the cheerleader whose sweet - and almost silent - love story has no problem existing alongside brattiness and strength, and Emma Ladji is extremely impressive as Colleen. She sometimes seems like she's all of a teen movie's one-note side characters put together - the goth musician who wears African face paint but also works as a dressmaker's apprentice making pretty pink homecoming gowns - and makes it feel more like a young person containing multitudes and having a lot of potential directions rather than just irony.

Reeder drops them into a film that is often strange and heightened, but maybe not to the extent that one might expect from seeing all the surrealism compressed into a trailer. There are a couple of out-there bits you can't ignore, but they have a purpose - Lisa's tendency to convert 80s pop into choral selections for her students speaks to her trying to hang on to her youth but being bemusingly out of touch with her post-millennial students (see also how Joanne looks indifferent to her father's old mixtapes, though not in an unkind way); Carolyn's unquiet corpse is answers always moving just out of reach. But mostly, things are weird in the way they can be weird in the real world, shot in striking fashion.

There's also a nice release, with several of the film's best moments coming in the last few scenes as the teens grow more self-assured and start to process it all. It's not exactly a light ending to an often-heavy movie, but it makes the idea of revisiting the film more appealing, especially when so many like this are well-crafted but have no way out of their dreariness.

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originally posted: 12/11/19 02:30:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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