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M.F.A (15)

Director: Natalia Leite

Screenplay: Leah McKendrick

Starring: Francesca EastwoodClifton Collins Jr.Leah McKendrick

Review: David Stephens

As shocking sexual revelations and accusations regarding the elite of Hollywood’s ruling classes seem to hit the headlines every single day now (and with the US and UK’s politicians seemingly following in their footsteps), the release of a recent genre “rape-revenge” film is sadly pretty timely. A sub-genre that was arguably born into fruition with 1978’s “I Spit on Your Grave”, the base concept is often set around a “Death Wish”-type scenario with a female vigilante exacting righteous justice against those who assaulted her (or her kin). It can swing from sheer exploitation like “Savage Streets” (1984), to something which cuts closer to the bone like “Ms. 45” (1981). Recent scandals involving several hushed-up sexual assaults in US University campuses also provide an uncomfortable backdrop to this film. Named after the graduate degree for “A Master of Fine Arts”, it stars Francesca Eastwood (daughter of Clint and Frances Fisher) who started out in reality TV but is now steadily building up a very good reputation in films. It’s directed by Natalia Leite the Brazilian-born writer/director/actress, and written by Leah Kendrick (“How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse”). After a showing at SXSW and the UK premiere at Grimmfest, it is now widely available for streaming in the US and Canada, with a UK release hopefully soon, so YGROY takes a look…

Noelle (Eastwood) is an art student at Balboa University and seems to be struggling to find her place there. Lacking the outgoing social skills of her fellow students, she’s also picking up some savage roasting for her art-work from her classmates and tutor. (“It looks like something a 16 year-old girl painted in her Mom’s basement”) Nonetheless she is attracted to pretentious wannabe-sculptor Luke (Peter Vack) and accepts his invitation to a party. However as soon as she’s in a room alone with him, he turns out to be a detestable douche that doesn’t understand the notion of “No”, and thinks that rough sex seemingly lifted from pornography is the standard norm for a liaison. Following the assault Noelle is emotionally broken, but is advised by her councillor and campus neighbour (Sky, nicely played by screen-writer Kendrick) to simply keep quiet about the occurrence. Unable to do that she confronts her attacker and is appalled by his lack of self-awareness, which leads to a violent incident. Following that, Noelle realises the scope of the problem around her and is driven to action by those unwilling to face it. Unexpectedly this leads to her art-work becoming more visceral and passionate, being much-praised by those around her. However her actions will inevitably have more tragic side-effects…

Taking that base concept could have resulted in a morbid piece of exploitation or a simply strung-together vigilante story. Happily MFA has a lot more substance to it than that. A lot of this comes from Eastwood herself. Although perhaps best known for her reality work, and parts in “Heroes: Reborn” and “Fargo”, her recent turn in “The Vault” was easily the best thing about that film. It’s actually quite a subtle performance, with no obvious displays of hysteria or overblown monologues, but using her expressive eyes and an undercurrent of steely strength to sell the role. She really does give the film that extra layer of realism and believability that it needs to work, and she’s more MVP than MFA. It’s summed up well by going from that shy introverted student at the start, to a powerful character that instils genuine trepidation in a character to whom she says “You need to watch the way that you speak to me”.

The bitterness at the injustice and inequality of the subject matter is painfully obvious here. All the tales of sexual assaults could have been cut-and-pasted directly from umpteen police reports over the last few years, and it all feels sadly a little too realistic. The “alpha males” see nothing wrong in their actions, with one asshole thinking that acceptable past-coital behaviour is flinging a towel in the face of his “lover”, so she can clean-up and skedaddle. Just as uncomfortable is watching Noelle’s gender become complicit in their actions, with one character simply sympathising and saying; “It’s just one shitty night. Don’t let it ruin the rest of your life”. The film also takes a swing at the half-hearted liberal attempts to tackle the issue, with one female-led meeting talking about an appropriate hash-tag for victims and distributing nail-polish that can detect date-rape drugs in a drink!

Whilst it might feel at times that it could become a little black/white in its intentions and message, at least with Noelle’s retributions it doesn’t supply pat answers or a hateful kill-all-blokes exercise in misandry. Her actions have severe repercussions and not just for her; it adversely affects a close friend and sabotages a prospective romantic relationship with a genuinely decent guy. The idea that her murderous actions empowers her and makes her a better artist is a little off-putting though, as is her rapid transformation into a confident killer after very little “training”.

The police are shown as being pretty shitty (although that’s the main idea we guess), with no real clue as the identity of the oestrogen-driven killer. But (bar one murder) Noelle’s campaign for justice is not a proto-slasher affair. Blood does get spilt, and one particularly effective (and nasty) slaying parallels the words/actions that the perpetrator subjected his victim to, which is a nice ghoulish touch. Otherwise don’t expect hatchets or knives to be slung around by Eastwood, for most of the time she (and the movie) is smarter than that. But Eastwood does carry off the she-venger character very well, even if the transition seems a little too fast.

Although it doesn’t go full art-house and has a very low budget, the visuals and soundtrack carries itself a little like a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. There are the occasional surreal images of Noelle’s paintings, along with close-ups of a spider crawling across blood-stained glass, but that never gets in the way of the plot. In fact, it even mocks pretentiousness a little, with the intentionally ludicrous lines like; “what does it mean to approach a non-painting discipline as a painter?” The movie certainly looks good as well with clever use of colour and lighting.

All in all, this is a deservedly modern and reflective take on an old exploitation sub-genre, with plenty of depth. The tone may be a little uneven at times, but in its entirety it remains a solid story of tough justice. One of the final lines in the movie (“Dare to make the world uncomfortable with your honesty”) could not possibly feel more topical. But along with that, it contains a classy central performance from Eastwood, an effective and strangely offbeat genre tale, and something that contains some depth along with its simple revenge motif. An unorthodox lesson in violence…

This is a striking and well-crafted “she-venge” film that manages to avoid the lower levels of exploitation. Gifted with a great performance from Eastwood and some uncomfortable IRL situations, it’s sometimes hard to watch on an emotional level but it’s always compelling. Credibility is stretched but the overall this is a stylish take on a difficult subject with no easy answers. Men Feel Afraid…
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