film review: blame

With all its inherent drama, high school has proven a popular setting for the reimagining of classic literature. Some popular examples include Emma (Clueless), The Scarlet Letter (Easy A), and Twelfth Night (She’s the Man). On the decidedly darker—but no less enjoyable—side is Blame, the debut film from writer/director Quinn Shephard which draws heavily on Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible.

After an extended absence, Abigail (Quinn Shephard) returns to high school under a cloud of rumor and speculation. An incident in psychology class the year before led to her withdrawal; no one ever shares details of what happened, although other students who witnessed it have given her the nickname “Sybil”, presumably inspired by the pseudonym of a woman whose treatment for dissociative identity disorder was the subject of a 1973 book by Flora Rheta Schreiber.

Chris Messina and Quinn Shephard in Blame

Ridiculed and ostracized by her peers, Abigail finds refuge in an active fantasy life. This helps her excel in drama class, where substitute teacher Jeremy (Chris Messina) has assigned Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as that year’s selection for the school showcase. Picking up on the cruel treatment by some of the other students, Jeremy asks for Abigail’s help with the showcase, and later suggests that they perform a scene together. Melissa (Nadia Alexander), one of Abigail’s tormentors, feels increasingly jealous of the intimacy she sees developing between Abigail and Jeremy. As her manipulations surpass petty teenage torments, real life starts to mirror fiction in disturbing ways.

Both Ms. Shephard’s writing and direction are incredibly assured, debut or no. An understated style predominates the film yet there are several shots that hint at a flair for the dramatically vibrant. This tendency carries over into her script, which allows for the expression of sentiment, suspicion, and innuendo in silence. Blame is far from a silent film, however. The din of high school can sound deafening at times in comparison to Abigail’s taciturn existence, and when the personal dramas of her, Melissa, and Jeremy reach their peak it’s with a violence of emotion long simmering beneath the surface.

Ms. Shephard makes the most of Abigail’s reserve; both her quick glances and private smiles manage to convey a great deal. As the wayward teacher, Mr. Messina captures Jeremy in all his complexity. The window we’re given into his personal life reveals a man who is a little lost, a little lonely, and more than a little vulnerable. It’s less surprising, then, how he might get carried away by similarities between a bright student and himself until he’s dangerously close to crossing the line of propriety.

No less complicated is Melissa, played with nasty relish by Ms. Alexander. She flings verbal cruelty with a casualness unique to the teenage years, an everyday, recognizable villain. And while the film starts off with the mystery of Abigail’s background, it’s the private life of her nemesis that slowly overtakes the narrative and inflicts much of the damage. Sarah Mezzanotte plays an at-times-reluctant companion to Melissa, caught between her edgy new friend and the reliability of old friend Ellie (Tessa Albertson), an important observer to the happenings around her. Both acquit themselves well and add dimension to the struggles and demands of friendship at that age.

It’s refreshing when a filmmaker can take a story from classic literature and reinterpret it through a modern lens so smoothly. Blame will provoke conversation about much more than the powers of rumor and jealousy, which are certainly formidable in and of themselves. Ms. Shephard is off to an excellent start, and I look forward to what she comes up with next.

RATING: ★★★ ½

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