A student composer finds herself passed-over for a scholarship for playing it too safe with her music, abandoned by her boyfriend for being dull and naive and about to lose her New York apartment thanks to a rent hike.
She figures she can solve every single one of those problems just by becoming a sex worker. Who’s prim and demure and broke and uninspired now?
That pitch for “Her Composition” might point in a couple of promising commercial directions. But as it’s a “film festival” movie, arty and self-conscious, caught up in the visual “language of the cinema” and the artist’s need to flirt with madness and personal disaster to break through, it was probably never destined for a multiplex near you.
(It goes into limited theatrical release and onto VOD/DVD soon.)
It’s a striking movie built around an awakening performance by Joslyn Jensen (star of film festival favorite “Without”), playing a conservatory post-graduate hurling herself off a personal and creative cliff, something suggested by her dismissive mentor (Kevin Breznahan), taking in the sights, sounds, minutia and textures of the Big City as she reinvents herself and her music.
Malorie is a classic small-towner in the big city, delicate but flinty, loathe to accept defeat and “go home” when the Big Scholarship for Women is awarded to a male classmate.
Despondent at this news, comforted right up to the moment he says “I’ve been hanging out with someone else” by her cowardly beau, Malorie takes a walk on the wild side to help her pal Gila and their favorite non-profit, Purple Justice. They’re a rapist-shaming NGO in contact with a sex worker who’s offered to share her client list with them.’
The exotic and mysterious “Kim” (Okwui Okpokwasili) has taken careful notes and photographs and “rated” her various clients. It’s a list that promises to make noise in the media, we’re told. And Malorie, noting that Kim is also an artist (she denies it), is intrigued.
With Gila’s help, Malorie takes over Kim’s list — as an experiment, as an experience, as a money-making side hustle. She’s got two deadlines hanging over her — her Phd composition for “The Schmeerstein Ensemble,” a modern music quintet, and the end of any government investigation of “the list,” the paying customers she’s helped set up for arrest.
Complicating this? She’s timid and boring in bed.
But as she lies back and focuses on wallpaper patterns, a street busker outside the hotel window (one client likes it standing up against windows), of the sounds her sometimes tender, generally brusque, always selfish with perhaps even a rapist or two in their ranks lovers, Malorie loses herself in what could be her masterpiece.
Writer-director Stephan Littger doesn’t dwell on the morality of what’s going on, the “victimless” crime shrieked into scarlet-letter-shaming by a shrill organization that both supports sex workers and condemns, without irony, their clients.
Littger exults in the music of the city, from clacking subways to street cellists and bongo drummers, the gritty patter of life in New York. He gets lost in extreme closeups of ordinary objects allegedly “meaningful” thanks to their juxtaposition within the editing — a dead bird on the street, dead fly on the table, the card-reader on the subway, sneakers hanging over a telephone cable looking like musical notes as they do.
That is Malorie’s new experience of the city — at the atomic level. As she gathers input, she covers her newly-repainted walls with a Mind Map, charting ideas and inspirations to make them flow into creative output. It’s a vast, messy collage of torn sheets of music, drawings, busted door privacy chains, that dead fly, a torn plastic plate we’ve watched Malorie drag her nails across while eating take-out curry.
Jensen makes Malorie seem on the spectrum in early scenes, meek but given to flashes of anger, slow to follow conversations, a tad too innocent to be in New York.
Her journey through the sex trade begins in fear, transitions to transactions and teeters on the cusp of guilt and guilty pleasure. With a return to fear reminding us why this “list” might be righteous.
Decoding the visuals here could be a fun exercise for some, but most of us will latch onto Jensen’s attention-consuming turn at the center of it all, a scattered, perhaps “talented” creative person whose eyes open to a new world of possibilities when she burns down that old life and throws herself into risks.
Malorie is a fascinating, prudish riff on amorality and creativity and Jensen makes her worth following all the way through to her inevitably climactic final “Composition.”
But for parents shipping their kids off to art, music, acting or dance conservatories, it deserves better intertitles than the pretentious quotes from Georgia O’Keef and Joan of Arc. A simple “Don’t try this away from home” would suffice.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, explicit sex
Cast: Joslyn Jensen, Margot Bingham, Kevin Breznahan, Christian Campbell, Okwui Okpokwasili, John Rothman
Credits: Written and directed by Stephan Littger. An Indie Rights/Picture Train release.
Running time: 1:33