Fantastic Fest Movie Reviews Movies

Fantastic Fest 2019: “Knives and Skin”

It isn’t often you see feature films centered around realistic teenage girls, especially if they’re more focused on friendship than rivalry. But at its heart, that’s what writer/director Jennifer Reeder’s “Knives and Skin” is. That went over incredibly well with the Fantastic Fest audience when it screened on Saturday, September 21.

Reeder says she likes to “promote this film as a feminist film with the message that female friendship is a survival strategy.” And that isn’t an inaccurate portrayal of what the film does, though it’s not that simple.

At the beginning of “Knives and Skin,” a high school girl named Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing. But this isn’t a mystery for the audience; at first, we’re not sure what her fate will be, but it isn’t hidden from us as it is from the rest of the characters. Carolyn’s mom (Marika Engelhardt) is a teacher at the high school, which probably makes things harder emotionally for herself and for her students. (She appears to teach girls’ choir.) And the film has much more fun following everyone but the missing girl, though her story impacts everyone’s lives in small ways.

Main characters seem to weave in and out of the movie’s focus, but there are two mostly separate groups: the teenagers and the adults. The former are trying to deal with the day-to-day difficulties of being in high school, while the latter are seemingly creating their own struggles. In fact, I wouldn’t call a single adult character in this movie likable. But, for the most part, the teenagers seem to be on the right path.

Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) in “Knives and Skin”

The main cast is made up of mainly local Chicago performers, and the movie does a great job of creating a diverse group of people reflective of the real world in terms of race, religion, sexual orientation and wealth. It’s a refreshing view — one we’ll hopefully be able to see more and more of onscreen.

One thing that can’t be ignored about “Knives and Skin” is the comedy. This movie is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, even though the story at its center is heartbreaking. The comedy comes from awkwardness, dad jokes, clever quips and more — there’s no lack of it.

The movie is also a musical, though not in the classic sense. Sometimes in real moments, and sometimes in fantasy sequences, the characters will break out into a capella performances of ’80s pop songs like Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Naked Eyes’ “Promises, Promises.” It’s a new and intriguing way to introduce a familiar soundtrack to a movie, and it works really well. In addition to these beloved songs, it features a beautiful original score by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Jennifer Reeder Q&A at Fantastic Fest | Photo credit: Waytao Shing

The tone of the “Knives and Skin” shifts from melancholy to sweet sarcasm to acidic wit, and handles those changes deftly. What does become an issue, however, is the number of characters whose stories are being juggled. We see snippets of everyone’s relationships, but most of them don’t feel particularly memorable or meaningful. It’s more the idea of them that sticks with you after the movie.

One aspect of the film that seems to be left to the viewer’s interpretation is a sort of supernatural effect that Carolyn Harper has. Her own existence, as well as many things she has touched (literally) have an actual glowing essence that indicates the power that she has. Reeder wanted to make sure this wasn’t another problematic instance of ‘fridging’ or a similar use of a missing girl, giving that character “will and agency and aura.”

So while “Knives and Skin” stumbles a little bit with its focal point, it has a lot to say and does a great job representing teenage girlhood, especially in 2019.

“Knives and Skin” can be seen again at Fantastic Fest on Wednesday, September 25, at 8 p.m.

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