As directorial debuts go, Amber Tamblyn’s “Paint It Black” is kind of a mess, but then, so are its characters, which makes the film’s raw, off-kilter style somehow right for the material, which began as a Janet Fitch novel. Fitch, whose “White Oleander” offered four talented blondes a chance to act their guts out 15 years ago, finds beauty in white trash, the way a bric-a-brac artist might transform old junk into something delightful. That’s how “Paint It Black” reads as well — unapologetically coarse at times, but gleaming with insights — and Tamblyn has tried, to the best of her ability, to achieve the same effect on screen.
In “White Oleander,” a teenager’s life was set adrift after her mom went to prison for murdering her boyfriend. Likewise, a dead man sets the plot of “Paint It Black” in motion, only this time, the corpse in question offed himself, turning the rest of the movie over to the ladies — mostly his chain-smoking girlfriend Josie (Alia Shawkat), a grungy artist’s model who dresses like a cheap hooker and lives in hipster squalor, surrounded by curbside-rescue furniture and other thrift-store finds.
Shawkat knows just how to play the young lady, though the character ultimately benefits from sterling contributions by all departments, from production designer Markus Kirschner and costume designer Christine Peters to the hair and makeup team who make the freckled star look so wonderfully feral. After all, it takes a lot of work to look like you just don’t care.
“Paint It Black” opens in Josie’s apartment, where she has passed out with one hand in her panties when her custom-decorated telephone rings, bearing the news that her tortured emo lover, Michael (Rhys Wakefield), has been discovered in some random desert hotel, having painted the walls with his brains. The voice on the other end wants to know whether he has any family.
Does he ever. Michael is survived by his mother and father, stiff upper-crust types who may as well be royalty as far as trailer-park escapee Josie is concerned. Dad Cal (Alfred Molina) comes across as a convivial old Graham Greene character, the sort one might expect to find overseeing a tobacco plantation in Havana, while mom Meredith (Janet McTeer) is a reclusive pianist, once quite renown, who now keeps to herself in a posh Hollywood mansion.
A camp icon in the making, Meredith is like a cross between Norma Desmond and Miss Havisham, with a dash of Cate Blanchett’s “Cinderella” stepmother thrown in for good measure. Like some rare breed of albino praying mantis, Meredith tends to lurk in the dark, elegant yet frightening — so extravagant in both attitude and costume that she’s sure to inspire a few drag homages come Halloween.
At Michael’s insistence, Josie has always kept her distance from this creepy matriarch, whose hold over her son was simultaneously cold and smothering. But now that he’s dead, she has not choice but to confront this larger-than-life figure, venturing into the woman’s gothically appointed domain.
True to its title, “Paint It Black” is a dark movie to begin with, its expressionistic spaces and seemingly bottomless shadows gorgeously rendered by DP Brian Rigney Hubbard. Within Meredith’s mansion, we find dramatically lit scenes in which practically the only details our eyes can make out are the fireplace, Meredith’s crystal liquor service and her long white talons, pounding away at the piano as she interrogates the girl she blames for her son’s suicide.
Did Josie corrupt Michael, steering this suffocating rich kid away from his predetermined fate? Or was she the closest thing to happiness the troubled kid ever experienced? Their flashbacks together are among the movie’s brightest moments, including one in which she demonstrates her capacity for spontaneity by doing a cannonball into his leaf-covered pool. Even so, we never quite feel the tragedy of Michael’s death, which means that it’s hard to distinguish Josie’s emotional tailspin from her already self-destructive habit of partying and drugs. Meanwhile, though undeniably delicious, Meredith’s character remains a broad caricature at best — and their power struggle has no stakes: both women have already lost the thing that they love most.
The trouble with a story like this is there’s not really anywhere for it to go. Tamblyn and co-writer Ed Dougherty relish the fever-dream aspect of this exercise, including Stan Brakhage-esque avant-garde flourishes and tacky Cal Artsy black-and-white sequences in which Josie’s blue dress is the only splash of color. But there’s no sense to be made of Michael’s suicide — and besides, the movie shouldn’t really be about him anyway. In the end, Josie drives out to the hotel where he killed himself seeking an explanation. What she really needs is a new start, and the one “Paint It Black” provides is pathetic, involving the redemption of a character introduced 10 minutes from the end.