Review: ‘Eileen Is a Spy’

The technically accomplished Amerindie feature "Eileen is a Spy" examines emerging female sexual identity in terms that rather too closely echo its heroine's problem. She's so socially withdrawn as to be nearly invisible; similarly, film's themes are so timorously advanced that there's almost no dramatic impact. Commercial prospects are negligible, but new-director showcases and gay fests might find this ultimately unsatisfying effort promising enough to program.

The technically accomplished Amerindie feature “Eileen is a Spy” examines emerging female sexual identity in terms that rather too closely echo its heroine’s problem. She’s so socially withdrawn as to be nearly invisible; similarly, film’s themes are so timorously advanced that there’s almost no dramatic impact. Commercial prospects are negligible, but new-director showcases and gay fests might find this ultimately unsatisfying effort promising enough to program.

Eileen (Tami Hinz) is a gangly young woman with a penchant for Annie Hall-ish duds and no apparent vocation. She fills her time with an assortment of slightly odd activities — like driving around back roads performing burial rites for roadkill. Most of the time, however, she “spies” on others in the small Minnesota town where she’s taken up residence — quietly observing diner patrons, penning notebook observations and deploying a tape recorder or camera on occasion.

“Ever since I was very young I felt like an impostor,” she says, later confessing to not understanding “people or what they want.” It’s as though she’s researching normal social behaviors with an eye toward one day fitting in. Yet no one seems to notice, let alone befriend, Eileen.

Until bold Jayne (Beth Gilleland) crosses her path, that is. Their relationship has a strong undercurrent of mutual physical attraction — which Jayne readily admits — but Eileen (who at pic’s start reluctantly slept with a male date) doesn’t seem ready for that, or any other true intimacy. Finally, frustrated Jayne announces she’s moving to California for a new job. Having experienced some murky personal catharsis, Eileen is last seen driving off, presumably in romantic cross-country pursuit.

Semi-surreal dream sequences, plus the recurrent specter of her childhood self, imply Eileen may be wrestling with repressed paternal-abuse memories. But her psychology is so little-revealed that the approach seems less tactful or impressionistic than simply underdeveloped. As a result, intended dramatic potency never accumulates, leaving as pic’s dominating flavor its rather mild, fey humor.

Debuting feature director-scenarist Sayer Frey incorporates audio interviews with 15 real-life women, who talk about formative sexual experiences, difficult family backgrounds and related matters. But Eileen, too, has voiceover moments, and these become difficult to distinguish from the intended Greek chorus of nonfiction speakers.

“Eileen is a Spy” recalls Patricia Rozema’s ’87 Canadian “I’ve Heard the Mermaid Singing” for its whimsical tone and focus on an eccentric, withdrawn heroine slowly gearing up toward same-sex infatuation. But this feature flirts with more serious themes in a too-diffuse fashion, and lacks that earlier film’s greater character, narrative and seriocomic definition.

As low-budget filmmaking, however, it’s admirably turned out, with stylish B&W photography and clean sound recording. Given sketchy writing, perfs are OK, if not particularly charismatic.

Eileen Is a Spy

(COMEDY-DRAMA -- B&W)

Production

A Cantadora Films production. Produced, directed, written, edited by Sayer Frey.

Crew

Camera (B&W), Maureen (Moe) Flaherty; music, Barbara Cohen, Brother Sun, Sister Moon; production designer, Heather McElhatton; costumes, Deborah Fiscus, Karen Bernthal; sound, Gerard Bonnette; associate producer, John Kremer. Reviewed at San Francisco Bi Film Festival, , July 26, 1998. Running time: 74 MIN.

With

Eileen ..... Tami Hinz Jayne ..... Beth Gilleland Young Eileen ..... Marsha Tivyan Jerry Lee ..... Neal Baxter Young Man ..... Michael Tisserand
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