Whatever its flaws, Natalia Leite’s “M.F.A.” certainly doesn’t suffer from timidity. Offering an unapologetically feminist, female-centric take on the oft-problematic (and oft-male-gaze-dominated) rape-revenge thriller genre, as well as addressing recent controversies over college campus assault in bold strokes, the film never shies away from righteous provocation.
As admirable as its aims may be, however, “M.F.A.’s” themes call for a careful, consistent tone that it is rarely able to maintain, and an increasingly ridiculous third act squanders much of the empathy and engagement that Leite works so hard to build in the early going. As a survivor-turned-avenger whose bloody campaigns against her own rapist and others’ become fuel for her art, Francesca Eastwood delivers a tough, eye-opening performance in the lead role, and her character’s vengeance packs a cathartic punch. But too much of the film fails to rise to her level.
Noelle (Eastwood) is a shy, withdrawn fine arts grad student at a fictional Southern California university, finding just as much difficulty fitting in socially as she does impressing her classmates with her pencil sketches. She’s thrilled when a good-looking classmate (Peter Vack) invites her to a party at his place, but soon after she arrives, her lures her upstairs and viciously assaults her.
The rape scene is difficult to watch, and Noelle’s catatonic initial response is vividly rendered by Leite’s clinical staging and Sonya Belousova’s unnerving score. Adding insult to injury, Noelle’s attempts to responsibly report the attack are greeted with apathy. Her next-door neighbor (screenwriter Leah McKendrick) advises her to try and forget about the whole incident, and when she visits a school administrator to file a report, she’s all but ignored. Finding no help — including with the university’s rape advocacy group, who would rather deal in abstract terms with awareness-raising hashtags and fundraisers than tackle the assault epidemic on their own campus — she goes back to her rapist’s apartment to confront him herself; in the struggle that ensues, he flips over a stairwell railing and falls to his death.
Initially, Noelle is both shocked and unexpectedly empowered by the turn of events, and channels the trauma into her art, winning praise from her previously nitpicky peers for her dark, newly confident canvasses. But when she learns of a videotaped gang-rape committed by a trio of frat boys on campus, she resolves to take more direct action.
When the focus is purely on Noelle and her transformation into an almost Punisher-esque vigilante, Eastwood (daughter of “Dirty Harry” actor Clint) owns the screen with her quiet fury. But all too often, the film gets in its own way. Supporting performances are uneven, and Noelle’s understandably difficult budding relationship with a nice-guy fellow artist (David Huynh) is oddly handled. Glimpses of the local authorities as they ineptly investigate her killing spree tend to stop the movie dead in its tracks, and in the build-up to a big climax, the film abandons all nuance and severs several connections to reality. Leite directs with a bracing, assertive style, and “M.F.A.” is admirably eager to probe sensitive topics, but without a solid narrative underlying its advocacy, it doesn’t hit as hard as it should.