There's this bit in J. R. R. Tolkein's The Silmarillion-and by "bit," I mean a good chunk, since the man was nothing if not verbose-that speaks of how the world was created out of music, and music which was intensely beautiful by virtue of the fact that it was so very sad. I understand what this means, and the fact that I do so quite effortlessly, and recognize that most other people would also understand this concept with little difficulty, makes me ponder upon just how tremendously fucked-up humans are as a species. Sadness isn't beautiful when it's our own. It's painful and wrenching and everything but beautiful when we're in the midst of it. Why then do we see beauty in tragedy? I can only surmise that it's a defense mechanism developed to keep us from completely cracking up; nothing else seems to fit. I mention Tolkein partly because I'm a bit of a geek, however much I try not to be, but also because thematically it's not all that different. This story, like most of Tolkein's work, treats emotions in the superlative, and in huge, broad strokes. It has no room for irony or postmodern cynicism. It takes love deadly seriously, as something that transcends mere existence, and it doesn't have the most optimistic outlook on just how such an uncompromising view of love and loyalty is likely to turn out in the end. This, despite the complete lack of similarity in setting, is where I saw a similarity, since, as one character mentions (though in reference to Shakespeare, not Tolkein), the subject is still relevant, and still the cause of much human angst.
This is a film which I was uncertain of how precisely to review after I'd gotten about a third of the way through, and which by the end had my head swimming with thoughts which were all eager to be the first out of the door. I'll get on with the basic premise: it's set at a girls' boarding school, there's three girls who room together, and the newcomer finds that her two roomies are in love. The fact that this is odd or unusual or potentially scandalous shows just how far we still have to go as a species. Ostensibly about the three girls and their relationships to one another, it's really the story of the two in love, as the third girl seems mostly there in the role of the audience and has little story of her own. She's played by Mischa Barton, currently known for her role of some chick on the soap opera Dawson's Cree-oops, I mean The O.C., a show I've never watched but have been forced to be in the same room with on occasion. I've never bought her as the requisite "hot girl," as she always seems to look rather sad and pathetic, which is why here she works just fine. The story is supposedly told through her eyes, though this only feels true up to a point. The film really belongs to Piper Perabo, who has been in a good number of bad movies and really needs to speak with her casting agent about getting her more roles like this one. Her character of Paulie is one she truly owns, and is one of those sorts of characters that I automatically gravitate towards. I've an inherent attraction for those people who are extroverted and willful and brook no injustice or bullying, and who do nothing that isn't done wholeheartedly, even though these sorts of people are frequently insane. There's just something compelling about somebody who will take shit from no one and feels emotion to the utmost; we're almost required to love them. There's nothing phony about them, and they don't tolerate it to any degree in others, which is where the shit collides with the fan: Paulie's relationship with roomate Tory, who is of a very conservative religious family, gets exposed, leading Tory to sever their ties and go to great lengths to prove to everyone else that she isn't one of those dreaded lesbos. Chaos ensues.
Where the film works best is in its ability to keep our sympathies with these two, even after their respective behaviors become ever more extreme in their attempts to repair/abandon their former love. I myself find it quite easy to blame Tory's parents, who, as she describes them, are the spitefully judgemental sort who would reject her as family if they knew the truth. I digress for just a moment to ask: who the hell needs people like this in real life? Has the world ever benefited from the presence of religious wackos, who arbitrarily hate anyone different from themseleves, even if said people are doing no harm? Would it be of any great loss whatsoever if all the fundamentalist nutjobs were sent to the fucking MOON so they could spend all their time in mutually reassuring conversational wanking-off for the rest of eternity without ever having to see anyone who isn't a "true believer" ever again? Who loses? Other than the moon, that is? But anyway. Where the film gets potentially iffy is in the completely uncompromised melodrama that unfolds between the pair, with Paulie's acting out becoming increasingly theatrical. The film itself never blinks at its own use of grand, overblown gestures, never takes the tone of anything save total sincerity, which is why I think that it pulls off what could otherwise be cheesily operatic. Severance of love, especially at such a young age, does indeed feel like the most tragic thing imaginable; to discover that all of us have the potential to be nearly any kind of person, and that someone can go from kind and caring to thoughtless and hurtful and yet still be the same person is the sort of thing no one can experience without hearing the swelling of the violins.
Where the film falters most is with Barton's character Mary, who supposedly is in danger of slipping into reckless emotional turmoil herself for reasons that never seem to fully materialize. I'm not certain that the film could be done without her, but her issues are definitely not where our focus lands. I tend to be wary of films or TV shows that quote extensively from Shakespeare, as it seems a short cut trick designed to confer weight to a subject by dropping in the words and ruminations of a more clever author. It works here, I think, but it teeters on being too much at times. The other...weakness? Issue? I don't know exactly what to term it, but the other thing that needles me is the sense that the story gives us no hope, no answers or anything we can take and learn about such situations as we see here. It's just so altogether goddamn sad that we wish there was some sort of redemption possible, but there comes a point a ways before the end when we realize that this isn't going to be the case.
I'm glad to have seen this film, though I don't know if it's one I'll want to revisit soon. It's not a perfect film, it's not sheer brilliance or something of the sort that makes a convenient box-cover pull-quote, but it has something. In the end we don't choose what affects us, we just know it when we see it. I just have too much empathy for Paulie to comfortably watch her endure the fate of those who are so resilient that when they finally break, they break all the way. My inner seventeen year-old, who lives about a nanometer under my skin (if that), loves her even when she's being absurd or unhinged, which is a not inconsiderable portion of the time. All I can say is that I've never been in love like these two people, and that I suspect this to be a very fortunate thing.
-review by Matt Murray