Abigail (Quinn Shephard), the big-dark-eyed tempestuous waif at the heart of “Blame,” is an agonizingly sensitive and withdrawn teenage girl who returns to her high school in suburban New Jersey after having suffered some sort of breakdown. We’re never quite sure what happened, but the students now refer to her as “Sybil” and scrawl things like “Who let the psycho out?” on the bathroom wall. They’re outrageously cruel, so when Abigail starts to take solace in the bond that develops between herself and a nerdishly brooding substitute drama teacher, Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina), the whole dramatic architecture of the film invites us to view their relationship in a sympathetic light.
That’s a subversive thing for a movie to do. Abigail and Jeremy never go further than engaging in a brief, passionate kiss, but in their imaginations they go much further. “Blame” depicts what happens between them as the chaste but erotically possessed fusion of two lost souls. And that could easily bring about the charge that the movie is thoughtlessly condoning a terribly inappropriate relationship. At a certain point, Abigail is even portrayed as the aggressor, which raises the question: Is the film pandering to a fantasy vision of a forbidden teacher-student romance?
The answer is yes. Yet “Blame” is no thinly veiled piece of teensploitation. The movie was directed and co-written by its 22-year-old star, Quinn Shephard (who is best known for her role as Morgan Sanders on the CBS drama “Hostages”), and she has made a skilled and confident, if sometimes awkward, filmmaking debut that dares to portray a scandalous situation by taking the scandal out of it — or, rather, by projecting that scandal onto the characters around it.
The connection between Abigail and Jeremy fuels the school gossip mill, and Melissa, the mean-girl ringleader, played by Nadia Alexander as a milky-skinned schemer with flame-red hair tips and a complicated scowl, tries to use it to destroy both of them, mostly because she’s jealous. The catalyst for her resentment is a dramatic showcase that features Jeremy’s students in selected scenes from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” None of the other students wants to act opposite Abigail, so Jeremy becomes her stage partner, and the two rehearse a scene between the characters of John Proctor and — yes — Abigail Williams. Abigail, wouldn’t you know, already looks the part: She dresses in frocks buttoned to the neck, parts her wavy long hair down the middle, and is so morosely decorous in her speech that all that’s missing is “thee” and “thou.”
The movie (mildly) parallels the witch hunt in “The Crucible,” with Abigail and Jeremy now cast as the guilty innocents at the center of a maelstrom. Yet “Blame,” urgent but sketchy, never quite feels like a high-school version of “The Crucible.” It’s closer to being a Roger Corman knockoff of “Carrie” (I mean that as a semi-compliment). Shephard’s performance has a radiant masochism — she’s a wallflower in bloom — and Chris Messina, with his thick-set handsomeness, mopes expressively. Shephard has a lively eye for the neurotic ripples of high-school society, but her most audacious gambit is to dare to place the audience in a grey zone between innocence and judgment regarding a relationship that plays out more sympathetically than it should.
The publicity for “Blame” has played up the fact that Quinn financed the movie out of her own college fund when one of her investors suddenly dropped out. That’s a good story, but what’s most telling is that in a behind-the-camera industry as daunting to enter for women as this one, she went ahead and followed her impulse by making a movie that rides a roiling B-movie wave of taboo emotion. The pieces of “Blame” don’t always fit together (Abigail’s mental illness starts off fuzzy, then just recedes), yet Shephard, to her credit, isn’t shy about showcasing the gradations of teenage rage. She gives Nadia Alexander a showpiece role, and Alexander makes the most of it, portraying the villainous Melissa as a chameleon who seems richer in every scene. She’s the movie’s real Sybil.