In her confident, crafty eyes and free-flowing cadences, Condola Rashad — daughter of Phylicia and Ahmad Rashad — more than slightly recalls the style of Denzel Washington in her commanding performance in “Bikini Moon”; she’s easily the most appealing thing about this latest effort from Milcho Manchevski, best known for 1994’s Venice Golden Lion-winning “Before the Rain.” The new movie, a fictional character study that doubles as an inquiry into nonfiction filmmaking techniques, is a patchy, intermittently captivating hodgepodge that begins promisingly before losing its narrative thread, a shortcoming that figures to curtail its theatrical prospects. Nevertheless, it’s a promising showcase for Rashad, who (presently seen on Showtime’s “Billions”) is more than up to the leading-lady challenge.
“Bikini Moon” is comprised of footage shot from numerous faux-verité sources, including security cams and cell phones. Its most consistent perspective, however, comes via the cameras of pretentious documentarian Trevor (Will Janowitz), who becomes consumed with making a movie about homeless (and fairly unhinged) Iraq War vet Bikini (Rashad) after discovering her at the drop-in clinic that employs his girlfriend Kate (Sarah Goldberg of “Barry”). Sporting big rings, frizzy hair, a nose piercing, arm tattoos and a wild smile, Bikini tells a counselor that she’s “a carpenter like Jesus — with tits,” and that the praying mantis is “the most elegant creature on the face of the planet.” She also wants help regaining custody of her daughter, though a subsequent freak-out makes that unlikely.
Kate’s attempt to procure a temporary residence for Bikini is stymied when the landlord, upon seeing Trevor’s film crew, rescinds his offer — an early, telling example of the way in which the documentary process invariably impacts what’s being documented. It’s not the last time Manchevski’s narrative highlights that point, albeit to diminishing returns. Better is the way in which the director repeatedly emphasizes Trevor’s gross exploitation of the situation. A sequence that finds Trevor and Bikini hiding in a van outside her daughter’s suburban home, all in order to stage a gripping on-camera reunion (presumably by using the same telephoto lens Trevor has previously touted as providing a great “voyeuristic impression”), is a stinging satire of the “reality” such projects seek to capture, and the genuine damage that can result from them.
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Things come to a head when the unreliable Bikini is invited to live with Trevor and Kate, leading to an ugly confrontation that feels like the natural culmination of the couple’s misbegotten venture. Unfortunately, there’s still an entire second half to “Bikini Moon,” and it turns out to be less successful than the first. Manchevski continues to vacillate between POVs with aplomb, all while underlining contrasts between the real and the artificial. Yet as Kate and Bikini develop an intimate relationship, and then try to fashion an unconventional nuclear family with Bikini’s young daughter Ashley (Mykal-Michelle Harris), the film becomes decidedly less authentic, in large part because Bikini herself is so clearly mentally ill and in need of professional supervision. In turn, this renders a good deal of Kate and boom-operator Krishna’s (Sathya Sridharan) behavior unbelievable, if not nuts.
Dubbed “a documentary about a fairytale,” Manchevski’s film leaps around in time before eventually indulging in some magic realism, but it’s most compelling when simply fixating on Rashad, who makes Bikini at once wounded and tough, conniving and kind, desperate and volatile. Her multifaceted turn as an individual who knows that everyone is taking advantage of her, and allows and combats that behavior with equal ferocity, lends the action its savage sharpness. Cutting through the material’s mounting haziness, her performance presents a memorable vision of abuse, trauma and defiant (if somewhat implausible) triumph.