‘That’s all they really want, some fun’.
These lyrics from Cyndi Lauper’s seminal smash ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ ring hauntingly through the final act of Jennifer Reeder’s neon-drenched world of teenage existential angst and sexual frustration. Joanna (Grace Smith), Laurel (Kayla Carter) and Charlotte (Ireon Roach) sing an acapella rendition of the 80s hit to Miss Harper (Marika Engelhardt), their choir teacher and mother to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), the young woman recently declared missing that acts as a backdrop to spur forward psychological and sexual awakenings in the sleepy town of Big River.
Carolyn was a girl that just wanted to have fun too, but teenage girlhood is a difficult and unforgiving place. It is during a lakeside make-out session with intolerable jock Andy (Ty Olwin) that she takes back her consent to take the encounter further, pushing Andy to abandon her on the dirt road. She is then declared missing not long after.
With her distraught single mother falling apart and a group of friends from her school band also experiencing drastic realisations, Reeder’s film is less about the mystery of what happened to Carolyn (everybody knows the outcome) but rather the exploration of a modern American teen and the breakdown of suburban life when faced with drastic change. Reeder’s glorious modernity echoes throughout her cast (many of them black women); race and sexuality are seamlessly interwoven throughout the film without ever feeling forced.
Conflicting visuals between American tradition and modernity are rife: when two female characters fall in love one of them always wears her Cheerleader uniform, the wife in the inter-racial couple appears dressed as a 1950s diner waitress − even Carolyn goes missing after her late-night rendezvous wearing her marching band uniform, hat and all. The surreal feel to much of Knives and Skin comes down to its infatuation with music. While its original score by Nick Zinner feels like a buzzing Cliff Martinez/Angelo Badalamenti hybrid, Reeder also incorporates a lot of 80s music (a reference to the golden age of teen movies perhaps?) within dream-like musical sequences that the girls perform. Christopher Rejano’s illustrious cinematography compliments this perfectly, neon lights and bright glows in places where they certainly shouldn’t, and an otherworldly feel surrounds what is likely to be a drab and dull Midwestern town.
The idea that identity and music can be so intrinsically linked was previously touched on in Reeder’s short A Million Miles Away but reaches its accumulation here when reality is heightened, and fantasy is just around the corner. At times it is purely hypnotic, but it does mean that the narrative is sometimes lost amongst it, never really settling on one direction. However, Reeder seems to be having so much fun in establishing herself as an auteur voice that its quite impossible not to be swept away with her conjured reality.
The ultimate charm of the film though is the girls’ agency. Sexual encounters are on their terms, romance is tender and never explicitly depicted, the girls bite back and sneer at the boys who ‘treat girls like shit’. They know their worth and know that the impossible maze of navigating teenage girlhood is their own and define. Charlotte wears warpaint daily to fight back at the sexist boys in school, crafting a crown out of her own hair. Costume designer Kate Grube is essential in depicting the punk, confident nature of these girls (a high point is the character Afra, whose leopard print hijab is held in place by a row of safety pins, complimenting her Siouxsie Sioux eyeliner).
As a teen movie, Knives and Skin is a difficult one to pin down, it doesn’t fit the mould but also doesn’t satirise. It pushes the envelope of the genre but owes more to the surrealist mystery of Twin Peaks than anything else. The film’s approach to narrative structure is both messy and strangely confident and alluring, poising Knives and Skin as a bold and complicated cross-genre anomaly, much like the women Reeder lovingly depicts.
Knives and Skin screens at the Overlook Film Festival on June 1st and June 2nd
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here