Fantasia 2019: ‘Knives and Skin’ Review – A Mesmerizing Exploration of a Small Town’s Large Grief

“Well if you aren’t a cunty-slut or a bitchy-tease, then what are you?”

Following its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival and now Fantasia Festival, Knives and Skin, Jennifer Reeder’s sophomore feature film is a genre-bending coming-of-age comedy that explores realistic depictions of grief through teen angst and adulthood disappointment. Reeder is no stranger to filmmaking, having made a previous feature and countless short films that center around girlhood as a place of “transcendence and transgression.”

Knives and Skin opens with Lisa Harper (Marika Engelhardt) wandering her darkly-lit home wielding a large, sharp knife. She knocks on her daughter’s bedroom door and asks, “Are you listening to your records? You still doing your homework?” No reply. “You still not talking to me?” Lisa enters the room to find that she isn’t there. Her intentions with the knife remain unclear, but the opening is infused with traditional elements of horror, more specifically the slasher genre.

It turns out that her daughter, Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), is actually at an isolated quarry with fellow highschooler Andy (Ty Olwin). She is wearing yellow-rimmed glasses and a marching band outfit, which is a surprise considering the “it girl” is usually without glasses and in a cheerleading uniform instead, but marching bands are more Midwestern, which is where this film is set. Carolyn is in control of their arrangement, telling Andy that he’s “such a nobody” before branding her first initial into his forehead with her nail. But Carolyn quickly loses control when she changes her mind and revokes her consent. Andy then becomes aggressive – he pushes her to the floor, calls her a “stupid slut” and tells her to find her own way home. She eventually hits her head, resulting in a bloody and fatal injury.

3 Knives and Skin
Newcity/Chicago Film Project

Whilst Carolyn is captivating in this opening scene, we never fully learn more about her. She’s an enigma – a Laura Palmer with no diary. We only have this encounter and her marching band uniform to fill in the gaps of the life we imagine she had. The paleness of her character, with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and diluted frames, tells us that she’s already a ghost from the moment we meet her. Instead of explicitly diving into Carolyn’s short-lived life, Knives and Skin follows the impact her disappearance has on a group of teenagers and their dysfunctional parents.

Reeder originally wanted to make a series of short films about adults having breakdowns at the wrong time. She told Ray Pride, film editor of NewCity: “We’re in a culture of people breaking down, but somehow manage, for the most part, not to break down at inopportune times.” She achieved this by showing coming-of-age as a lifelong process, alongside showing a realistic depiction of grief. She said, “Grief is extremely personal, and grief is really eccentric.” Following the disappearance of her daughter, it’s interesting to watch how Lisa copes as it’s not the stereotypes we usually see. Instead, the eccentricity Reeder mentioned flows constantly through her character. Lisa is a music teacher and shows up to class wearing one of Carolyn’s dresses over a t-shirt (she even wears one of her bras at some point). She weeps softly whilst the girls sing a somber acapella cover of ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ by The Go-Gos. Their singing is calm and beautiful in a way that’s reminiscent of Reeder’s short film A Million Miles Away, which follows the lives of a choir group and also features similar themes to Knives and Skin.

The plot of Knives and Skin follows a loose three-act structure, which only hints at the backstory. It’s perhaps very telling that Reeder didn’t go to film school, but instead went to art school. Some of her work has a surrealist quality to it, including Knives and Skin. A lot of the story is heavily told through dialogue and production design. The film has a soothing dream-like atmosphere to it overall, as well as a Lynchian feel. We occasionally see Carolyn’s dead body reanimate from the town’s grief. Reeder said Carolyn is “both a zombie and a ghost, but I have never seen a zombie or ghost portrayed in this way.” The way Reeder blends elements of horror with a coming-of-age story is pure genius.

1 Knives and Skin
Newcity/Chicago Film Project

Knives and Skin works mainly as a black comedy, featuring recurring themes of blood, death, and suicide that is evocative of Heathers (1988). When Laurel Darlington (Kayla Carter) asks her mother Renee (Kate Arrington) what she’s making, she says: “I’m making a flyer for that missing girl. I saw the ones her mother’s been putting up and they’re just hideous.” When Laurel points out that she misspelled Carolyn’s name, she says “Oh. Well, I’m not gonna start over, I worked really hard on this.” It’s the type of dark humor that made Heathers so iconic, and it continues strongly throughout the film as it explores a complex variety of themes.

The film is also aided by its beautiful cinematography – spattered hues of the favored bisexual lighting (pinks, purples, and blues), alongside more natural and realistic lighting. The choir performing songs such as ‘Blue Monday’ by New Order and ‘Promises, Promises’ by Naked Eyes creates a level of unadulterated emotion – they are performed in a melodic way that’s hauntingly beautiful, as some of the lyrics echo themes of the film, almost turning it into a musical.

Reeder said she is committed to telling stories about unruly women in unexpected narratives, and that is exactly what she has achieved with Knives and Skin. While exploring everyone’s determination to cope, Reeder doesn’t shy away from taking risks in storytelling. Seeing the teenagers have such strong agency whilst their parents are in crisis truly flips the trope on its head. However, the teenagers still have their own problems as they cope with their emotionally destructive parents and the disappearance of Carolyn. Knives and Skin is an effective coming-of-age story that breaks the mold of its genre. Reeder has a strong female voice that will hopefully gain large recognition and association with this genre as she continues to bring more realistic female-centered stories to the big screen. 

★★★1/2

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