Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley, “Hala”) is missing. Just who she is and what happened to her quickly makes way for the impact her disappearance has upon the surrounding community, in particular to a group of soul-searching teenage girls. Joanna (Grace Smith, “Dorm Therapy” TV series) and her friends — Laurel (Kayla Carter, “I Hate LA” TV series) and Charlotte (Ireon Roche, “Princess Cyd”) — are struggling to make sense of life, but significantly they recognize that hope is within reaching distance in the form of the outside world which is glimpsable from the rooftop of their school building. Through flushes of neon tones in pale pinks and purples that feel reminiscent of Daniel Goldharber’s “Cam” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon,” director Jennifer Reeder immediately establishes a hazy, dream-like aesthetic so we (like the members of the town) slowly slide into the deeply hypnotic spell of Knives and Skin.
With all minor plots revolving around the enigmatic, blonde girl of high-school age the film owes an obvious debt to David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” in which the disappearance of Laura Palmer kept audiences engaged in a similar captive trance. This recent incident feels like the icing on the cake for the extensive cast of characters whose lives are touched indiscriminately with some kind of malaise that seems to hover over the place like an unwelcome fog. Despite the level of interactions which we see taking place, there is throughout a stretching emptiness created by a knowingness from the beginning that all that lies beyond is more of the same. This sense of repetition is not to be misread as a criticism as on the contrary, the cyclical nature of the day to day lives of these characters is fundamental to the film’s overall objective; a dramatization of a continuous dream in which beginning and end feel inseparable from one another.
The notion of dreaminess (be it good or bad) is indicative through the continual theme of disconnect between parent and child, husband and wife and even between teenage friends with any dialogue resembling something approaching a series of self-reflective bullet-point style thoughts as opposed to a socially engaging conversation. The assumption that what we are witnessing is not actually taking place is bolstered by the use of song at regular intervals. This works on two levels: The first is purely sensory — the acapalla numbers performed by the cast whilst stoic also have an ethereal quality and therefore the dreaminess is being constructed and imposed on us via use of music and song. The second is that whilst the inclusion of songs can help lull us into a place that feels other-worldly it can also have the opposite effect in that it reminds us we are watching a film, taking us out of the dialogue-based scenes and never allowing for us to become fully immersed in the experience. By presenting segments of various disconnected stories this evokes the same sense of detachment we can often feel after having multiple dreams that are completely disassociated from one another.
The role reversal of children becoming caregivers to their adult parents reminded me of how Nancy Thompson is required to adopt this role and tend to her mother in Wes Craven’s 1984 “A Nightmare On Elm Street,” another film that plays with our conception of dreams and reality. As we near the end, just before her final nightmare, Nancy is shown nursing her mother a divorced woman who is battling with alcoholism and has also been repressing a dark secret for many years. In Knives and Skin, Reeder gives us Joanna, a girl of a similar age to Nancy who is shown bathing her fragile mother, a woman who happens to be dealing with depression and agoraphobia. In one moment, as if to solidify the reading of the film as a dream the tiger face emblazoned on her t-shirt comes alive and speaks in an attempt to encourage her to put the past behind her. Perhaps this is representative of her own realization which has only been made possible due to the combination of recent events.
If the disappearance of Carolyn signals the ringing of an alarm bell for (specifically the adults) of the community, the discovery of her body is the catalyst that shakes them out of their own dream-like, self-serving lives, awakening them to a new, sharpened sense of reality. Joanna’s jobless father who lives in a caravan on the driveway of the family home speaks to her of feeling “invisible.” With a painted clown face he goes through the film under the pretense that he is a working entertainer. Notably, once Carolyn is found he removes the make-up and ends an affair with his married neighbor; the mask is now off and this allows him to move forward. When Mrs. Harper (Marika Engelhardt, “House of Purgatory”) is visited by three of the girls who bring home-cooked meals for her she asks if they are okay and immediately follows this question by gently accusing them of lying, to which they all agree. She reciprocates their feeling of hopelessness by proclaiming that she “doesn’t know what the fuck I am doing.” This brief exchange marks the advent of both teenagers and adults understanding one another and most vitally, feeling that they can at last be open and honest.
In Knives and Skin, there are themes of disconnect, dysfunctionalism and the young being more insightful than the adults around them. This last point is illustrated when one of the students leads Mrs. Harper by hand when she is literally rendered blind following her request to try on an enlarged mascot style Beaver head. Reeder is clearly a creative who feels drawn to explore the female experience through her work and here she deals with issues such as social anxiety, depression and the damaging attitudes concerning body image with a welcoming fearlessness. Performances all round are consistent and effective and the presence of neon along with the sometimes-absurdist dialogue adds to the overall feeling that what we are watching is steeped in the fantastical rather than in realism. “Don’t jump, you’ll make a mess and its already such a fucking mess down here,” pleads Joanna as she looks up at her friend standing on the school roof. In an ironic twist it transpires that he is in fact looking at a different kind of way out and drawing comfort from the road which leads out of town, but if there is a lasting message to be found in the young girls’ final words of the film it is that we must keep prevailing.