Narrative Feature Competition film Here Before and 2020 Spotlight film Violet, both shown at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2021, have women as their central characters. Happily, their women directors, Stacey Gregg and Justine Bateman, approach their subjects and protagonists with authority and sensitivity. In each film the protagonists must stand up for themselves, take their power and establish their agency. Here Before takes place in Northern Ireland and Violet in Hollywood. By the conclusion we appreciate how both women overcome their internal crises.
Here Before‘s character Laura (the superb Andrea Riseborough) establishes a solid, wholesome, family unit. Interestingly, she keeps it smoothly running. Yet we learn of the loss of their daughter in a car accident years before. Living with that ache in her heart, she encourages their son in his schoolwork. She maintains the balance with her husband. But when a family moves next door in the duplex, including daughter Megan (Niamh Dornan), circumstances turn inside out.
Initially, Megan appears to be canny in her interest in Laura and the family. Returning the interest and fascinated by her, Laura invites her to dinner. Clearly, Megan’s response at dinner reminds Laura of her lost child, Josie. Events intensify and the son becomes upset thinking that his mom’s obsession with seeing and visiting with Megan can’t be healthy. When the husband echoes the son’s comments and expresses his angst, the director throws the audience into the weeds. Perhaps Megan channels her daughter Josie, as Laura believes at one point. Or as her son considers, perhaps she’s crazy. Nevertheless, Laura gains our sympathy and we trust her judgment, empathizing with her loss and the new richness in her life.
Psychologically, Megan causes the family stresses. Indeed, the husband thinks Laura’s grief has overcome her. The son believes Megan threatens to break the family apart. Challenged by her husband, Laura tells him to leave. After he does, she attempts to restore order with her son. Stacey Gregg, who also wrote the film, shocks us with Laura’s audacity. She tears herself apart through wanting Megan to be Josie. Yet, by yearning for this fulfillment, she fears that she’s losing her hold on reality.
Substantively, Here Before‘s flirtation with the mystical psychological appeals. But reality lands with a blow. Laura must confront the truth revealed by Megan, who wishes the best for both families. Gregg’s strengths of storytelling lie in her editing and in shepherding the actors to deliver stunning performances. As they dance around the paranormal and bridge the heavenly and the earthly, we willingly follow. Laura’s journey runs deep into herself. By the startling climax, we understand her statements of forgiveness and reconciliation to what she can bear.
In Violet the titular character (Olivia Munn) reels in a cataclysm of self-doubt. Bateman who also wrote the film creates Violet’s interior monologue, which spools in a constant drone of demeaning comments. Ironically, these come in the hyper-critical voice of Justin Theroux. Brilliantly, his snide, cruelty only abates when Violet chooses some self-effacing decision. Usually, it’s to bow to a male (i.e. her boss or someone else). Interestingly, the acquiescence ultimately infuriates her, as she suppresses her agency and autonomy for another.
Cleverly, Bateman chooses to reveal Violet’s interior rage by fading the screen into a muted red. Ironically, Theroux’s cryptic statement follows, “There! Don’t you feel better?” Of course the antithesis is true. The suppressed rage intimates self-betrayal, accepting someone else’s ideas and abuse. Indeed, Violet retains the power and intelligence to gain agency over herself. But she obeys “the voice.” Finally, she discusses “the committee” with a friend and receives help.
Through a number of instances, we note that Violet’s brilliance as a film development executive places her in forward momentum. Interestingly, the boffos in the agency mistreat her; her boss demeans her with backhanded compliments. Though she ignores their behavior, a Black executive who has it together identifies their reactions. He supports her power and talent against their lame uselessness.
This moment is a turning point. And gradually we note that friends like Lila (Erica Ash) abound to her account. The adorable Red (Luke Bracey) provides his caring guidance and support. His and others’ love help her so that she can turn off the “committee” of despots (Theroux’s nasty insults) in her mind. Most probably this committee hails from past negative encounters with her mother, aunt and brother. All it takes for us to understand how misaligned they feel with her are a few phone conversations. During these and through sardonic facial expressions, we get their enjoyment of oppressing her. Obviously, not close to her brother who resents her, Violet separates, choosing her mother’s funeral to cut the hangman’s noose.
Clearly, Bateman wants the audience to feel and understand Violet’s inner hellishness under the duress of her own internalized Nazi. Can she rescue herself from herself? When distinguished-looking guys from another outfit approach Violet and offer her a plum position, we hope she takes it. Instead, loyalty to her miserable boss Tom Gaines wins out. Then occurs a superb moment in the film. Helped by Red’s growing love she asserts herself. She explodes the myths Gaines uses to embarrass her for the last time. I imagine this marvelous scene in a theater without the pandemic yielding a chorus of cheers and loud applause.
On her first directing venture Bateman shepherds the the cast well. The conclusion satisfies after Violet kicks the horrific Nazi to the curb. However, until that occurs, there is one nail-biting encounter after the next. Happily, loving friends show up to soothe Violet and via identification us.
For updates on film screenings, go to the website: https://www.violetthefilm.com/