No 12-year-old should have to confront the violent act Blaze (Julia Savage) witnesses seven minutes into the imaginative empowerment story that bears her name. But Blaze is no ordinary girl, and fine artist-turned-filmmaker Del Kathryn Barton’s “Blaze” reflects that, using a dazzling combination of digital and practical effects to represent the interior world of a survivor who has long relied on make-believe to cope with an overwhelming world.
Produced by Australian elevated-horror shingle Causeway Films (“The Babadook”), “Blaze” marks the feature directing debut of a distinctive new voice, and though there’s a certain woodenness to the narrative, the visuals — glitter dreams of a 10-foot fuchsia dragon — radiate with originality. In the film’s prologue, we meet Blaze as a toddler, seated before a wall of Barton’s psychedelic paintings: five panels depicting nude goddesses entwined with radiant birdlike creatures. The artwork is colorful but unclear, though it’s safe to assume that in the intervening years, these images have become the basis of Blaze’s unique emotional support system.
Represented by a sparkly puppet with emerald green eyes, a stuffed-piñata head and tinkling feather wings, Blaze’s personal dragon looks like something that might ride atop a Mardi Gras float. Meanwhile, a curio cabinet in the corner of her bedroom houses a small army of ceramic figurines — kissing kangaroos and kitschy salt and pepper shakers — which also come to life for her on command. These creatures keep Blaze company on a daily basis, but aren’t necessarily equipped to help her cope with the shock she gets on her way home from school.
Listening to music and minding her business, Blaze turns down an alley where a couple are arguing. Blaze is wearing headphones and can’t distinguish what’s being said, but we can: The woman, Hannah (Yael Stone), makes clear that whatever may have happened before between her and the tall, pushy gentleman, Jake (Josh Lawson), she’s not interested in crossing that line again. And yet the man insists. “But all that eye contact … what was that?” he says, pulling at Hannah’s clothes and blocking her escape. Blaze stands petrified around the corner as the violent scene escalates, involuntarily sharing in the trauma of this brutal, fatal assault.
How is a child supposed to make sense of what just happened? It’s upsetting even to adult eyes (despite its preteen protagonist, “Blaze” is intended for grown-up audiences). Barton dedicates the rest of the film to this question, blending scenes of clumsily written reality — wherein she and co-writer Huna Amweero share statistics on femicide and abuse — with welcome interludes of sideshow escapism. Blaze has a way of retreating into her head, a carnival-like space where she can run free on the beach and scream the feelings she can’t put into words.
Her father, Luke (Simon Baker), is familiar with the way Blaze’s mind works, but is attentive enough to recognize that something must have happened to disturb his daughter. Luke desperately wants to help, but doesn’t always know how. This makes him an ideal parent when he admits as much — millennial movies’ new favorite theme, wherein parents apologize to the more enlightened generation that follows. Barton is big on symbols but not on subtlety, making her points with a heavy hand. After Luke asks his daughter what’s wrong, the film cuts directly to the police station, where the reluctant young witness must look at photos of the crime scene and describe what she saw to authorities.
This is a #MeToo-era movie if ever there was one, using the kind of cultural conversations the movement has made possible to explore the idea that violence perpetrated against one woman amounts to violence against all. At home, Blaze uses the internet to research Hannah, trying to construct a mental picture of the victim, who will soon feature in her hallucinations. During an unfair court hearing, Blaze is cross-examined by the assailant’s attorney and forced to answer uncomfortable questions about sex. As she sits there on the stand, Blaze’s reality ruptures even more: She bites down on her plastic dragon toy and imagines herself torching the rapist with a mouthful of fire.
Blaze is overwhelmed by the situation. We understand why she might flip out when she sees Jake from the school bus window, for example. But there’s something fundamentally unconvincing about Barton’s entire premise. The artist hasn’t necessarily earned such an extreme rape scene, instead treating it as a device by which to make her point about the way a blissfully naive child learns to confront the dangers and disillusion of the adult world. Other films have used magical realism to illustrate the way kids process trauma (“Where the Wild Things Are” and “A Monster Calls” come to mind), but not in the same way, and trying to comprehend how Blaze relates to her make-believe companions is not especially intuitive.
Turns out, they can’t protect her any more than the ineffectual adults can. Uncertain what to do, Blaze’s dad sends her to therapy, where she asks, “Why am I locked up but Jake isn’t?” Life’s not fair, and Barton addresses that with a mix of sensitivity and barely suppressed fury. In the end, Blaze must slay her own dragon to find her strength — a ritual that’s every bit as spectacular as it sounds. The movie climaxes with this sequence, a stunning phantasmagorical montage that rivals “Euphoria” in its capacity to rock audiences to the root. Barton still has a ways to grow as a dramatic storyteller, but the experience is so cathartic, one suspects that “Blaze” serves much the same function for the artist: something she had to get off her chest to move forward. Watch out, world, for whatever comes next.