I love the way Blame captures the kaleidoscopic emotional experience of being a teenage girl.
By Peg Aloi
From a sociological perspective, this is what we know about the Salem Witch Trials: the teenage girls of Salem Village who were at the center of the hysteria were not socially powerful people. They were servants, many of them orphaned and sent out to work by their families, and their prospects for marriage were dim. Once their ravings and finger pointing drew accusations of witchcraft they played along; better to be minor celebrities than return to the drudgery of their lives, where they were unloved and likely abused. Dramatist Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is celebrated as a clever allegory for McCarthyism; but its portrayal of its cabal of young women dramatizes their lack of community, emphasizes brittle alliances hastily made and harshly broken. After the executions, the young accusers were ostracized and forgotten.
Blame (in selected theaters and on Amazon), an astonishingly self-assured feature debut from filmmaker Quinn Shephard (the 22 year old co-wrote, edited, directed, and plays the lead role), chooses a particularly fertile theater for its action: a high school drama class. The opening scene gives us a teenage girl getting out of bed: Abigail (Shephard), a willowy, sloe-eyed girl whose face suggests a composite of Winona Ryder, Audrey Hepburn, and some ageless forest nymph whose smoldering gaze could incinerate your soul. Okay, perhaps a bit much, but this actress exudes a luminous, haunting presence. Abigail brushes her hair and then grabs her books before heading off to school. Two of the covers are visible: The Glass Menagerie and Sybil. If you were a theater major (like me), you would have noticed the glass unicorn (a symbol of innocence and fragility) in the opening shot of Abigail’s window, an object associated with Williams’s heroine Laura, a shy and disabled young woman. Written in the 1970s, Sybil was a best-selling non-fiction case study about a woman with severe multiple personality disorder, later made into a TV movie.
Abigail has apparently been out of school for a few months, treated for an undefined episode of mental illness. She meets with a school counselor and her parents, professional types, the mom coolly asserting Abigail is ready to return to school and the dad barely looking up from his smartphone. In the hallways, we meet Ellie and Sophie, two pretty blondes laughing over photos from junior high, and Sophie’s new friend Melissa, who we met in the scene just prior when her stepfather (Tate Donovan) barged into her bedroom and scolded her about wearing a skimpy outfit to school. Melissa’s scarlet-tipped tresses, heavy black eyeliner and tight clothing are meant to radiate toughness and sexual allure: she’s rebelling against her stepdad’s control. Played by Nadia Alexander, who, interestingly, also had a role in Jenji Kohan’s now-scrapped series about Salem, The Devil You Know, Melissa’s pale doll-like features give her a vulnerable ingenue quality belied by her tough-girl antics.
Abigail’s classmates know she was “away” and have taken to calling her “Sybil” from the book they read in their psychology class. Melissa writes a nasty message on Abigail’s locker in lipstick while Ellie (Younger’s Tessa Albertson) looks on in horror and Sophie (Sarah Mezzanotte from Royal Pains) looks conflicted. They don’t want to call out Melissa for being mean to someone she’s never met. Abigail then goes to her theater class, where she reads some of Laura’s dialogue. Her heavily pregnant teacher (a foil for Abigail’s aloof mother) praises her for being the only person who prepared for the reading. Melissa looks on with a sneer, twiddling with her smartphone, flirting with two boys (Eric and TJ) in the back of the classroom.
When young adolescent women compete for attention as they forge their identities jealousy and cruelty often prevail. The cinematic archetype of the teenage “mean girl” is well established: think back to The Children’s Hour or to Brian de Palma’s glossy adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie. The WB and later CW networks made this a familiar TV trope, with 90210, Dawson’s Creek, and Popular. Friendships among high schoolers are often formed through scapegoating, by bullying other, less popular girls. The outcasts usually have to find social engagement on their own terms. In Blame, the most outgoing popular kids are the cheerleaders and athletes; they show disdain for academics. Serious students, like Ellie and Abigail, are frequently seen alone. Abigail, whose parents seem to be quite distant from her life (after the opening scene we don’t see them again), clearly uses theater as a form of self-expression; her dowdy outfit and pretend limp are a sort of master-class exercise in identifying with Laura. Melissa and Sophie mock Abigail for it. Meanwhile, Melissa makes a play for Eric, the boy Sophie likes, while continuing to pretend to play matchmaker.
When the drama teacher goes on maternity leave, substitute Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina) decides that The Glass Menagerie is a bit pedestrian for the school drama showcase. Instead, he suggests they perform scenes from The Crucible. At the same time one of Melissa’s male cohorts eggs her on to read for Abigail, Abigail raises her hand to volunteer. Jeremy notes the subtle tension in the room and says “I gotta go with the namesake,” choosing to help a shy student. Eric is chosen to play John Proctor; Melissa uses this as an opportunity to draw a jealous Sophie into her bullying campaign. When Eric blows off rehearsal, Jeremy decides he will read for Proctor instead, which further infuriates Melissa, whose harassment of Abigail intensifies. When Ellie questions why Melissa is angry at Abigail, the exchange leads to Melissa suggesting Ellie must be a lesbian. Ellie, mature enough to see through these games, walks away and starts spending time alone, journaling.
After Jeremy praises her acting, Abigail rehearses her scenes in her bedroom at night and starts wearing prim but attractive dark dresses, a sort of Puritan Goth aesthetic, and slowly comes out of her shell. The teacher asks her to assist in various tasks in putting the showcase together. The two spend time alone in the auditorium; one day, when a rainstorm finds him driving Abigail home from school (that old song by the Police was running through my mind), they linger a moment to listen to the radio — erotic tension thickens the air. The song “Hold That” (it turns out that most of the songs in the soundtrack were co-written by Shephard. Holy crap, is there anything this young woman can’t do?) is sensual and rhythmic, casting a spell that even the approaching headlights of Jeremy’s girlfriend’s car can’t break. When Jeremy comes inside, soaked to the skin and looking a bit guilty, Jennifer (Blindspot’s Trieste Kelly Dunn) berates him for missing their date and for generally being aimless and noncommittal. The two split up, temporarily. Back at school, sitting unobserved, Ellie witnesses Jeremy and Abigail’s growing closeness, and writes about it in her journal.
After a night of drunken debauchery with Melissa, Eric, and TJ, Sophie feels rejected and tries to get back into Ellie’s good graces, using her as a means to further Melissa’s plot against Abigail. If this sounds like the manipulative dynamic set-up between Abigail Williams and Mary Warren in The Crucible, with Abigail using Mary to ensnare Elizabeth Proctor, well, yes. Exile from a desirable social circle is a torment that inspires desperate measures. Melissa’s jealousy of Abigail goes well beyond the burgeoning, improper attraction between the teacher and his pet student: we are seeing two young women who lack nurturing adult figures in their lives. Abigail’s crush on Jeremy Woods (his last name is a nod to where her Crucible namesake performed naked rites to lure her married lover) is pure romance and fantasy. Melissa is acting out her own lack of self-control. But Jeremy, for his part, is drawn to Abigail, mature beyond her years and, like him, a bit lost.
Blame reminded me of The Sisterhood of Night, another self-assured feature debut by Caryn Waechter, adapted by Marilyn Fu from Stephen Millhauser’s short story. That film is also heavily steeped in the imagery and events of Salem, though its jealousy and cruelty play out via social media. In Blame, the intrigue feels more direct and intimate. While Shephard’s screenplay (co-written with her mother, Laurie Shephard) has its flaws, her considerable skill as a filmmaker is impressive. She has been acting since she was very young, and her performance here is confident and mesmerizing. The film’s atmospherics, from its cinematography to the costumes to the use of music, reflect an aesthetic maturity one would expect to see in a more more experienced director managing a bigger budget. I love the way Blame captures the kaleidoscopic emotional experience of being a teenage girl, one moment ecstatic and exuberant, the next dreamy and dark, the next angry and despairing. Shephard’s dramatic vision may be constrained by her youth and inexperience, but if this debut is any indication, she has a bright, enthralling future ahead.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.