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Film Review: ‘Knives and Skin’

Director Jennifer Reeder’s spirited attempt at teen-dream surrealism lacks authenticity, which weighs down and otherwise solid story.

Knives and Skin
IFC Films

Jennifer Reeder’s “Knives and Skin” will test the limits of viewer patience. This high-camp murder mystery presents itself as “Twin Peaks” for teenagers, with considerably less flair or suspense. The positive qualities lie in the surrealistic film’s bold cinematography, distinctive use of music, and diversity of cast, though that’s not enough to redeem this tedious viewing experience. Following a festival run that began at the Berlinale, IFC Midnight is giving the film a limited release in theaters Dec. 6, day-and-date with VOD.

In an unnamed suburban town somewhere in Illinois, the disappearance of Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) sends a ripple of paranoia throughout the community. While every secret revelation leads closer to the truth of her disappearance, as long as the case goes unsolved, the inhabitants begin to unravel. The upheaval is most pronounced among the young women of the area, including drug dealer Joanna Kitzmiller (Grace Smith), goth musician Charlotte Kirtich (Ireon Roach), and cheerleader Laurel Darlington (Kayla Carter). According to the social hierarchy of high school, these girls wouldn’t interact, but tragedy brings them together. Through their newfound connection, the trio begin to reject societal norms and start embracing feminist ideals of equality.

As Joanna, Charlotte, and Darlene rise in power, the adults begin to regress. Carolyn’s mother (Marika Engelhardt) is restless and unstable. Rightfully so, as she has no idea where her daughter is and the local police are useless. Joanna’s parents (Tim Hopper and Audrey Francis) have a loveless marriage. He’s out of work, and she dissociates from reality by talking to inanimate objects. Laurel’s mother (Kate Arrington) and her non-stop histrionics are tearing her family apart, which forcibly puts Laurel in the position of playing the motherly figure for the household. While the adults are spiraling out of control, the girls have to constantly remind them that Carolyn is still missing.

The three young girls deal with the constant threat of bodily harm from jocks and creeps who like underage girls. Whereas their microcosmic environment typically boxes them into traditional gender roles, in the wake of this devastating turn of events, they start to rebel against the status quo by being assertive and demanding respect from the men around them. As their bond with one another grows tighter, they acknowledge that consent is a powerful tool, and begin using the word “no” unapologetically.

“Knives and Skin” closely mimics the narrative beats of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” but fails to capture the charisma behind its unique series’ blend of crime and supernatural elements , making it difficult to gauge Reeder’s particular style. The surrealist atmosphere and quirky dialogue add levity to the serious subject matter, but its campiness overshadows the message the film wants to convey. The acting lacks charm as characters move and speak like robots, which can be grating for audiences trying to invest in what’s happening.

Although some characters feel underdeveloped, Reeder does deserves praise for her inclusive casting choices and attention to representation, which is often lacking in the surrealist genre. Also, stunning cinematography by Christopher Rejano creates a depressive and claustrophobic atmosphere that intensifies with every trippy and deranged moment (as in a scene with a talking T-shirt). Purple, blue, and green lighting hues inject life into the movie’s otherwise bleak setting.

Another unexpected choice is the movie’s use of music. The heroines belong to their school’s all-female choir, and Carolyn’s mom is their instructor. She leads them in melodic renditions of songs by the Go-Gos, Our Lips are Sealed, and New Order’s “Blue Monday” — a nice touch that sounds nearly as good as Quindon Tarver’s cover of “Everybody’s Free” in Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Since a show like “Twin Peaks” is not for everyone, such an homage will undoubtedly be an acquired taste as well. Lynch has a incredibly specific manner and cadence to his direction. Trying to emulate his trademark style to the letter is an ambitious feat, but leaves a huge margin for error. “Knives and Skin” is a good story that could be better with a stronger, more authentic approach. Reeder shows enough talent that she would surely benefit from developing a signature approach of her own, something more personal to her unique voice, rather than borrowing the aesthetics from another director.

Film Review: ‘Knives and Skin’

Reviewed online, New York, Dec. 4, 2019. (In Berlin, Tribeca film festivals.) Running time: 111 MIN.

  • Production: IFC Films release of an IFC Midnight presentation of a Newcity’s Chicago Film Project production. Producers: Brian Hieggelke, Jan Hieggelke. Executive producers: Tremaine Atkinson, Christopher Keogh, Tony Olson.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Jennifer Reeder. Camera (color, widescreen): Christopher Rejano. Editor: Mike Olenick. Music: Nick Zinner.
  • With: Marika Engelhardt, Tim Hopper, Kate Arrington, Audrey Francis , James Vincent Meredith, Ty Olwin, Grace Smith, Ireon Roach, Raven Whitley, Kayla Carter, Jalen Gilbert, Emma Ladji, Robert Cunningham, Tony Fitzpatrick, Marilyn Dodds Frank.
  • Music By: