Judging from its playful title, “Girls Against Boys” aims to flip the script on the battle of the sexes, forcing a handful of guys to atone for the sins of all men as two mad-as-hell gals go on a bloody revenge bender. Clearly seeking attention, writer-director Austin Chick (“XX/XY”) appeared stunned by the lack of outrage that accompanied this yawn-inducing SXSW midnight premiere, but then, there’s something already old-hat about giving girls guns — and swords, and reciprocating saws — to the extent that this Chick pic’s greatest provocation is how slow and disengaged it feels. Both genders will bite on VOD.
To call Shae (Danielle Panabaker) unlucky with men would be an understatement: On the same day she gets dumped by cheating husband Terry (Andrew Howard), the 21-year-old undergrad endures the come-ons of male patrons at the bar where she works, goes home with three randy guys and suffers a sexual assault at the hands of Simon (“Cloverfield’s” Michael Stahl-David), the baby-faced one of the bunch. Unluckier still, however, are the men who crossed her.
After the rape, Shae confides what happened to loose-cannon co-worker Lu (Nicole LaLiberte), and together they go to the police, who instruct Shae to fill out a report but do little to investigate her claims. While Shae suffers the detective’s skepticism, the scantily clad Lu hangs out in the lobby, distracting the front-desk cop with a leg-spreading show that would make even Sharon Stone blush.
Later that afternoon, Lu turns up with the officer’s gun. Though auds get to see the unpleasant seduction/murder by which she acquired the weapon (twice!), Shae isn’t curious enough to push the point. These ladies have retribution on the agenda, starting with the men least responsible for their direct misfortune (“The only thing that keeps them from acting like pigs is that they’re cowards and they’re afraid of getting caught,” Lu rationalizes) and working their way up to Simon and Terry.
Though “Girls Against Boys” postures as if it’s all about exploring gender dynamics, it raises only a fraction of the insights Chick brought to his debut, “XX/XY,” as it simultaneously plays and underplays the exploitation-movie card: The rape is shown out of focus, the murders are relatively bloodless, and the whole thing unspools with moody, slow-motion detachment — “tasteful” solutions to the pic’s inherently disagreeable scenario. It should be noted that the women-on-top revenge genre is almost exclusively the domain of male directors, who mistake their fetishization of distaff killers for empowerment.
As the pic’s corrupting vixen, LaLiberte looks disarming, her giant, wide-set eyes and doll-like face contrasting with the rest of her hypersexualized appearance. Panabaker is more demure, but instead of embracing that persona, she goes through much of the film in a numb fog, dissuading the sort of identification that would make this stunt more subversive — or, at the very least, engaging.
A poster in Shae’s bathroom and other clues none-too-subtly suggest the entire ride may be little more than the retribution dream of a modern-day Alice. Though intended to leave all that’s transpired open to interpretation, the last few scenes instead serve only to confuse what we’ve seen, a slippery attempt to subvert this usually gratuitous genre.
Chick’s influences range from gonzo French thriller “Baise-moi” to razorblade-laced “Hard Candy,” with an “Audition”-lite hobbling thrown in for good measure. At least a dozen other pics have tried to tweak the same nerve to better effect, leaving this self-satisfied attempt to stun feeling like a pose, the blanks-and-squibs version of a familiar showdown.