Blame is a drama about a drama teacher’s taboo relationship with an unstable student who strikes a nerve in her jealous classmate.
I’ve always appreciated a film that is willing to embrace a classic theme and take it in a divergent direction while keeping it recognizable. Actress Quinn Shephard, in her feature film directorial debut does just that with Blame, a stylized upheaval of sorts of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” delivering a dark and visually arresting experience capped by some haunting performances. A personal passion project for the young talent (she is 22 year-old), this is a curious and utterly fascinating journey.
Abigail Grey (Shephard) wakes and dresses for her first day back to high school, this after six months away dealing with some psychological issues. She seems somber and introverted, looking to remain in the shadows for the year, keeping out of sight and just doing the work, though happy to be selected to play the lead in the student performance of The Crucible, that of ‘Abigail’, which her teacher Jeremy (Chris Messina), a young failed actor working as a new instructor seems particularly amused by. Abigail is already a target (they write ‘Sybil’ on her locker, referencing the famed book about multiple personality disorder), her past leading to some obvious mistrust and scorn from fellow students, but none more so than Melissa (Nadia Alexander), a hot-headed cheerleader who isn’t pleased when she is cast as an understudy. Meanwhile, Jeremy takes to Abigail’s passion for the role and after volunteering to be a scene partner, a bond forms, sparking some fires, leading Melissa to plan something dark. But not all is as it seems.
We are not told why Abigail missed school and was in the psych ward, giving much of the first half of the film a sense of ambiguity and tension in how stable or otherwise she is. Blame seems to align itself with the the standards of the bully-in-school genre, with Melissa the quintessential monster and Abigail the victim, but Shephard has other designs in mind, twisting in a game of seduction and intrigue with a well-rounded cast of authentic characters. This includes Melissa’s friends Sophie (Sarah Mezzanotte), who dotes over her every word, and Ellie (Tessa Albertson), who questions why she is so hostile. There’s Eric (Luke Slattery), a handsome boy in class who is like a seesaw in Abigail’s world, keeping her constantly unbalanced and I also really like Owen Campbell, who after last year’s As You Are and this, is proving to be a real presence.
The Crucible was a criticism of the social dogma of McCarthyism in the United States, using the prosecution of women as witches in Salem and while Shephard uses themes of paranoia and condemnation similarly as an allegory of life in high school, she successfully metamorphosizes Abigail from the crumbled wallflower at the start to something altogether different as the story progresses. What’s more, Shephard takes the time to better define Melissa, stripping away a number of conventions this kind of character is typically shaped by. Alexander walks a thin line and delivers with some genuine impact. Best of all though is Jeremy, a man torn by his home life with a pressuring girlfriend and lost dreams, succumbing to his desires and in so doing, leaping over all the wrong lines. Messina does excellent work and convinces from the start.
Blame is an unusual take on the premise, perhaps slightly flawed as it is, but one full of surprises, mostly because it refuses to settle into the tropes and avoids expectations. These feel like genuine people and as such, their fates are all the more compelling. This is a dark, sexy, troubling film from a young, fearless director and actress that should redefine for her, everything after.
Movie description: Blame is a drama about a drama teacher's taboo relationship with an unstable student who strikes a nerve in her jealous classmate.
Director(s): Quinn Shephard
Actor(s): Quinn Shephard, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Chris Messina, Nadia Alexander