Sisterhood of the Unraveling Plans: Paint It Black

Paint-it-Black-alia-shawkatPaint It Black
Directed by Amber Tamblyn
Opens May 19

Amber Tamblyn has arguably been the least visible of the on-screen sisterhood of the traveling pants, at least among the non-CBS demographic. America Ferrara has a blossoming NBC sitcom, Alexis Bledel has Gilmore Girls forever, and Blake Lively was in The Shallows, motherfuckers. But Tamblyn’s gig as a Charlie Sheen replacement on Two and a Half Men, while probably technically higher-profile than any of those, is destined for cultural-footnote status, so it’s pleasing to find out that she’s a clear-eyed director.

Her debut, Paint It Black, stars fellow charismatic but sometimes underused young ex-TV actor Alia Shawkat as Josie, a woman who makes it about ten minutes into the movie before she’s grieving her departed boyfriend, whose death comes as a shock. Tamblyn shoots in colors that are dark but rich, light sources blazing, the camera lingering on Shawkat’s freckled, tear-streaked face before cutting to her hiding herself at a red-lit, strobing punk rock show. The image would be even better if Tamblyn didn’t loop her utterance of “mother” (answering a question about the dead guy’s surviving family).

Worse, that student-film fussiness has portent: Dude’s mom is the other important character in the movie. Meredith (Janet McTeer) hated Josie before her son’s death, and blames her afterward, as demonstrated in a funeral dust-up like something out of a De Palma movie. Josie is then counseled by Meredith’s ex and her boyfriend’s dad, Cal (Alfred Molina), and the movie starts oscillating between maudlin quirk (the tone of so many grieving-people indies) and dark psychological obsession.

Unsurprisingly, Meredith and Josie find some commonalities: They each, at different times, feel emboldened to confront the other despite all sense telling them to stay away. And they both answer the question “What do you want to drink?” with “alcohol.” (It may also be the answer to the unasked question, “Why are you hassling this bereaved semi-stranger?”) As the two women are repeatedly drawn to each other, sometimes with tenuous friendship and sometimes with outright hostility, the material starts to feel a little thin—specifically, around the time Josie starts making a low-budget independent movie whose scenes feel like hallucinations or dream sequences, and then maybe bleed into actual hallucinations of dream sequences. This is all to say that the student-film vibe returns with a vengeance, even as Tamblyn’s compositional eye holds steady.

Despite some nods to convention, like requisite pre-death flashbacks to Josie’s relationship, Tamblyn does come up with something unpredictable, even if some of its methods (like montaging over some big emotional breakdowns) seem experimentally ill-advised. Paint It Black may eschew some of the trappings associated with indie-movie grief because it’s not necessarily beholden to that movie genre but rather based on the novel of the same name by Janet Fitch (White Oleander). Reading about the source book is the main way I figured out that the story is set in the 80s, though I guess the lack of cell phones and laptops might have tipped me off. Or is the movie set in some kind of David Robert Mitchell-ish in-between time? There are definitely snippets of some decidedly post-80s diegetic music cues courtesy of Merge Records. It’s all part of the movie’s weird stew, wherein McTeer gives a crazy-eyed performance in one moment and a subtly tender one the next. Shawkat fares better, but she’s still left grief-drifting towards an ending that’s at once anticlimactic and absurd. Tamblyn has talent; maybe this material just doesn’t naturally lift off the page.

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