Imagine “The Breakfast Club” set in “Twin Peaks.”
There’s a mysterious disappearance, adults misbehaving or just plain mentally ill and their kids acting out, toying with adult perversions, obsessed with menstruation and singing, in plaintive choral settings, the music of The Go Go’s, New Order and Cyndi Lauper.
In “Knives and Skin,” writer-director Jennifer Reeder (“Signature Move”) lays out a lifetime of obsessions in a moody, atmospheric period piece that isn’t a period piece. It’s uneven, frustrating here and there, icky there and here. And it’s a picture that, like a hormonal teen, puzzles through the uncertain emotions, observed hypocrisy and sexual/fashion experimentation as one makes up one’s mind about such things.
It begins with a hook-up, or near hook-up. Pretty marching band member Carolyn (Raven Whitley) gone for a ride with jock Andy (Ty Olwin) with certain expectations and demands. She doesn’t want her new glasses broken.
“I actually DON’T want to see what’s about to happen,” she buzzkills. I nasty love-scratch on his forehead. But no kissing on the mouth, and then…”I changed my mind!”
Andy ditches her, sans glasses, in the middle of nowhere. Carolyn never makes it home.
Her classmates — including friends who had a rock band with her as their drummer — are ill-equipped to deal with the shock. Her school chorus-leader mom (Marika Engelhardt) goes straight into denial.
“Can I have Renee (his wife) send over a casserole?” the sheriff (James Vincent Meredith) wants to know.
“I don’t think it’s time for a casserole, yet,” she intones. Time passes, and Mrs. Harper grows more deluded, speaking to the student body as if Carolyn is merely late, and assuming that she shares her mother’s musical priorities.
“She’s missed three marching band practices in a row,” she tells the kids. “She’s gonna get kicked out!”
Joanna (Grace Smith) used to be a friend. Now, she and her circle ponder Carolyn’s fate, judge her even though they’re not blind to the raving dysfunction in their own families. and in Joanna’s case toying with adults obsessed with teen sexuality. Carolyn?”
“I ignored her, like everybody else.”
Tampon gags, underwear sales to pervs, a grandma (Marilyn Dodds Frank) who gets her jollies from porn and nude-modeling for art student, an unemployed father who dresses in clown makeup to cheat on the madwoman (Audrey Francis) he is married to, fashion and makeup statements straight out of Madonna/Adam Ant-era MTV (Maybe it IS a period piece) — there’s a lot to process here.
Perhaps the writer-director should have tried, you know, processing it.
That’s why “Knives and Skin” feels like a TV pilot, a “Twin Peaks” with music instead of lumber, no diner and no “damned good coffee.”
A stand-out moment, Carolyn’s mother smells her daughter’s scent in the car she was last seen alive in, smelling her even on the boy (Olwin) she was last seen with. Will she solve the disappearance with just her nose?
Reeder is better at landing a pithy line and maintaining a creepy tone than she is at pacing and the beginning-middle-end story story structure of a missing teenager tale.
She casts unknowns to little knowns, rarely identifying look-alike characters, leaving the viewer in the dark about who relates to whom, in some instances.
She had the makings for a cult film, a “midnight movie” as its distributor (IFC Midnight) no doubt hopes. But it’s entirely too scattered, sacrificing coherence, loaded down with characters who are more clutter than carriers of plot and substance.
MPAA Rating: unrated, bloody violence, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Grace Smith, Marika Engelhardt, Kate Arrington, James Vincent Meredith, Kayla Carter, Tom Hopper, Ty Olwin, Emma Ladji and Ra, Robert T. Cunningham and Raven Whitley
Credits: Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder. An IFC Midnight release.
Running time: 1:48