It’s a daunting task to try and break the mold of the high school coming-of-age film, let alone do it successfully. But every so often, a filmmaker takes the reins on the widely popular formula and dares to disrupt it without compromise, making for an unforgettable and expansive addition to the genre.
Enter Knives and Skin, a twisted portrait of teenage suburbia that blurs the line between fact and fever dream from Chicago writer-director Jennifer Reeder.
Set in an undisclosed midwest town (but shot in Lemont, Illinois), Knives and Skin follows the aftermath of the disappearance of Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), a high school student left battered, lost, and alone by a lake after she changed her mind about hooking up with a boy on the football team.
Carolyn’s disappearance is the catalyst for the rest of the town to lose their marbles, starting with her mother (Marika Engelhardt), who dons her daughter’s sequin formal dress and leads the school choir in complete emotional disarray. This unsettling feeling seeps into the lives of Carolyn’s classmates—namely Joanna (Grace Smith), Laurel (Kayla Carter), and Charlotte (Ireon Roach)—as well as their families. What ensues is a tactful peeling away of the picture-perfect walls the entire town so meticulously crafted, revealing a bounty of imperfections and secret lives in their place.
Everyone in Knives and Skin has something to hide. Joanna sells her mother’s underwear to older men, including her male teachers, in order to afford college application fees. Laurel tries to come to terms with her queer identity as a popular cheerleader in a rural town. And that sentiment goes twofold for the adults, who make glittery “missing girl” posters and sympathy casseroles to cover up their affairs, lost jobs, emotional abuse, and predatory behavior towards students.
At times, Knives and Skin can be a difficult watch, or at the very least a jarring departure from the rigid expectations of the genre due to its heavy themes, magical realism sensibilities, and experimental editing. But it gets at the heart—and under the skin—of the macabre truths of being an American teenage girl. Namely, that your feelings, experiences, and even your own life are not a priority in the larger social order.
The film also loudly champions feminist themes, even in its complicated web of scandal. The gruesome case of Carolyn exposes the reality of how quickly rejecting physical advances becomes a life-or-death situation. When discussing their past sexual experiences, Charlotte quips that as a teenage girl, you’re either a “slut or a bitchy tease,” to which Laurel responds, “I’m neither. I’m nothing. I’m nobody.”
Knives and Skin‘s production, costume, and makeup design create a disturbing-yet-familiar universe that is sure to give the CW’s stylized teen drama Riverdale a run for its money. Costume designer Kate Grube (who previously worked with Reeder on Signature Move) accentuates the drab of high school through Joanna’s kitschy iron-on tops—from Yoko Ono to Angela Davis—and Charlotte’s elaborate and avant-garde ensembles paired with white war-paint makeup. And the film’s musical moments are entrancing—throughout, Carolyn’s mother leads the school choir in haunting covers of 80s pop hits like the Go-Go’s’ “Our Lips Are Sealed,” Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” and New Order’s “Blue Monday.”
While Carolyn is Knives and Skin‘s inciting incident, she is largely left out of the picture, spare a few tantalizing cross-fades that signal the creeping passage of time. But Carolyn is a martyr for Reeder’s message—a complex and twisted commentary on the plights of human nature. v