RELEASE DATE: January 5, 2018
DIRECTOR: Quinn Shephard
MPAA RATING: NR
RUNTIME: 99 minutes
Quinn Shephard stars in Blame. She also wrote, directed, co-produced and edited the film. We know, right from the opening credits, that this is a story she wants to tell, and she wants to tell it with a singular vision and a creative continuity, bringing the project forth under her watch.
Her drive pays off in many ways. There’s a nice rhythm to the dialogue, a rapport for the characters and a friction between scenes. The movie propels with a pumping speed, never rapid but always ongoing. The energy is palpable, but sometimes it’s all too much. When the setting is as contained as this one, ensnaring the most serious implications with a tight timeline, an error in the plot’s threading, can cause a deflation in momentum.
To understand why, you must know how it begins. Abigail (Shephard) is a high-school senior who returns to school following a debilitating mental breakdown the year prior, an unspecified public incident that sparked much ridicule from her unforgiving classmates – a recurring taunt is to nickname her “Sybil.” Most of the bullying comes at the hands of Melissa (Nadia Alexander), who cajoles her popular friends into continuing the torment.
The quiet Abigail is resigned to this treatment, and opens up only to Jeremy (Chris Messina), the handsome new drama teacher. As the class prepares to put on a production of The Crucible, Melissa, carrying a crush on the instructor, becomes incensed at the attention he pays to Abigail. In a jealous spin, she attempts to orchestrate his downfall through nefarious plotting, which might be more at home in Colonial Salem than suburban New Jersey.
Blame introduces us to Abigail and Melissa in the first scenes and, over the course of the film, shifts its focus from the former’s struggles to the latter’s scheming. Shephard’s direction dips into the conniving twists and sudsy appeal of it all, playfully skirting the line between caustic entertainment and prurient antagonism. Melissa moves forward as a character, and by the third act, the script focuses much more on her development than the impact her effects have on Abigail. While attempting to produce proof of Jeremy’s involvement in an improper relationship, a couple of twists in the final scenes radically recalibrate the plot’s momentum.
Is the story about how those who seek to mindlessly destroy others are often doing so from a point of internal trouble or past trauma? There’s something there, but that’s not what the movie already told us it would be about nor who it would be about. Blame takes the meandering character density of a TV show and concentrates it into the interweaving narrative of a feature.
The effect is disconcerting, although the cast is talented enough to carry each scene on an individual basis. Some of the sequences – charged rehearsals, booze-and-pot-fueled hangouts and a powerhouse of a finale – work with such efficiency and purpose that they demonstrate not only strong acting but also Shephard’s already well honed capabilities as a filmmaker in her debut project.
In that respect, Blame is a proficiently made work, snaking into the confines of its environment and brushing up against the thorns and spikes that complicate matters further. The mood pops, and the editing is sharp and punchy. Its world is small: little exists beyond the main characters, even in terms of other students in the school, who seem to be inhabiting a different world as they move about their lives, oblivious to the drama taking place in their immediate surroundings.
It’s telling that the proposed consequences of a teacher sleeping with a student are treated more as personal vindication for the third-party accuser, than the legal ramifications of such an act. This approach is a blessing and a curse, allowing events to build with a slim frenzy, at the cost of accentuating the problems with narrative focus.