In a semi-seedy New York apartment, an actress mutters her lines, referring back to the text as she does.
“Receive the blood: and when that they are dead,
Let me go grind their bones to powder small…”
She’s prepping a monologue from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” But this pale young (Annarosa Mudd) isn’t just deep into character. She’s…off. If doing a DIY tongue piercing doesn’t tip you off, the light wrist-cutting might, the lipstick she wipes away the blood to cover her lips with firms up the idea. And there’s the body cam and microphone she’s taping to her torso.
There’s an audition, a dozen or so young women, fresh and naive, eager to get their careers started with a reading for a reality show. The handsome casting director, Lux (Tarek Bishara of HBO’s “The Tale”), is charming and buzzy, feeding on their enthusiasm.
Forget acting school, he preaches. “The real world is about connection, chemistry and socialization!”
Our tongue-pierced observer strikes up a chat with Pearl (Isabelle Fuhrman of “The Orphan”) who echoes everybody’s “I’m VERY excited!”
Pearl chatters through her meeting with Lux, insecurely filling his silences with “I need to learn to market myself.” But even if it doesn’t land her the part, Lux purrs, there’s the promise of a management contract. With him. “I’m silently asking you to PROVE” his “hunch about your talent!”
“Silently?” Never mind.
But in weepy phone calls home, Pearl gives away how depressed and distressing this struggle to get her foot in the door is. Lux’s “management” offer entails meetings at a coffeehouse, and then another audition — this one private — just the two of them, performing a scene.
“Tape” is about how icky that obvious set-up and come-on is, and how it’s turned on its head by a third observer. “Rosa” (Mudd) has spy cams and a tablet they feed into. When she mouths along to the lines Lux and Pearl exchange in the “scene,” we know she’s been through this herself. She knows what’s really going on. What will she do about it?
Writer-director Deborah Kampmeir, who gave us the queasy exploitation of “Hounddog,” has created a master showbiz villain, a slick-talking salesman who doesn’t apologize for “the real world,” or give away what this casting couch “audition” is going to be. He phrases his oozy stage directions and pep talks in literary and empowerment terms.
USE “those secret powers that are so intrinsic to the female gender,” he coaches. “SEDUCE me with your poise!” He references the 16th century “The Book of the Courtier,”which he knows the recent NYU grad read as part of her curriculum. He refers to what he’s up to as “this exercise.” He shames her for “self-deprecation,” insists that she “OWN the room.”
Yeah, he’s kind of a naive person’s idea of what a world-wise “mentor” would sound like.
Rosa? She’s storing clips on her tablet, listening in through earbuds, muttering occasionally at what’s going on as she plots whatever action she has in mind.
“Tape” is an intensely myopic experience, with much of what we’re seeing caught via Rosa’s tablet-eye-view. The suspense comes from our fear of what Pearl has gotten herself into, what Lux is capable of and what Rosa — with her thing for blood and self-injury, might be cooking up.
The performances are spot-on, with Fuhrman, no longer a child actress, well-cast as someone with that fresh-faced but not-a-knockout hunger of an actress who will need help standing out and getting ahead. Screen newcomer Mudd is just plain disturbing.
And Bishara is terrific playing the seducer as salesman and drill sergeant — knocking Pearl down then building up, perfectly polished in his patter, patient in his step-by-step approach to sexual harassment and “consent.”
Kampmeir’s made a lean, disturbing #MeToo tale that should be the last thing any acting class shows its students before graduation, if not on enrollment day as well.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sexual situations, nudity
Cast: Annarosa Mudd, Isabelle Fuhrman, Tarek Bishara
Credits: Written and directed by Deborah Kampmeir
Running time: 1:38