Film

A Filmmaker Probes the Magic and Madness of Female Adolescence

Film still from Jennifer Reeder's "A Million Miles Away" (2014). All images courtesy of Jennifer Reeder and REDCAT
Film still from Jennifer Reeder’s “A Million Miles Away” (2014) (all images courtesy Jennifer Reeder and REDCAT)

LOS ANGELES — As a woman who was once a teenage girl, I have a certain fondness for any filmic or visual art that harkens back to that time of intense, unbridled feelings, awkward physical changes, and sexual desires running wild ’n free. Now that I am far from my adolescent days, I have more emotional tools for dealing with the world — but that teen girl is always with me, full of her witchy vibes, “psychic” moments, intense creativity, and gender-defying fantasies. It is with this fondness for the teen girl memory that I arrived at Redcat in downtown Los Angeles for a screening of writer and director Jennifer Reeder’s three films about adolescent girls, including her two more recent “Blood Below the Skin” and “A Million Miles Away,” and an older short, “Seven Songs About Thunder.”

“Blood Below the Skin” follows the intersecting lives of three teenage girls from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Joni (Morgan S. Reesh) is a princess-like blonde-hair blue-eyed girl who is dating Clint (Luke Clohisy), the brother of Darby (Kelsey Ashby-Middleton), a high school student whose mother Jennifer (Jennifer Estlin) is mentally ill. Mom is too fed up to make Joni’s dress for the prom, so Darby does it. While they work on the dress, Joni and Darby discuss how far they’ve gone sexually with boys, egging each other on to see who is the “sluttiest.”

In a later scene, Joni, Darby, and Joan (Marissa Castillo) all run into one another in the bathroom, a place of public privacy at a high school. Darby’s nose is bloodied; she and Joni aren’t sure how to interact given their previous interaction. Joan appears from a stall, striking up conversation with Joni, as the two intellectually bond over their shared admiration for Joan Didion and Joan Jett. The two girls later discover that they have a magical “telepathic” connection, sending thoughts to one another with their eyes closed and happening to text each other emoji-filled messages at the same time. This closing scene would make any audience member swoon for that sweet teenage love feeling — the feeling that Reeder captures the most in her shorts.

Film still from "Blood Below the Skin" (2015)
Film still from “Blood Below the Skin” (2015)

Reeder’s previous film, “A Million Miles Away,” also focuses on similarly heightened teenage emotions, except through a grown woman, Crystal (Jennifer Estlin), who re-experiences those adolescent feelings through her teenage students. In one scene, she tries to read really far into a text message from a guy (whom she refers to as a “boy,” making her seem more teen), and ends up calling on a choir of girls to help her in deciphering the text.

Reeder’s oldest short of the three, “Seven Songs About Thunder,” follows a young woman who fakes pregnancy, messes with her therapist, and may or may not have killed herself or someone else. The plot lines in this story are harder to follow, and the tropes Reeder uses are less fleshed out than in the newer films — a therapist who is unhappy in her marriage, a girl who steals the cell phone of a “deceased” version of herself that lays near a river. The production value is undoubtably “lo-fi” here, indicating a clear entry point into personal filmmaking for Reeder. The production value improves significantly in the more recent films, with sharper colors, clearer close-ups, and sharper cuts, thanks to the addition of producer Steven Hudosh.

But all of these films are all short, clocking in at 20 or 30 minutes, which means that Reeder and crew do not have that much time to fully flesh out characters, their backstories, location specifics, or what it truly means to inhabit a teen girl body today — especially with the onslaught of social mobile communication on top of all the usual extreme feelings. I left wondering what these three films might have been like as one longer film, especially since there were some recurring motifs throughout. For example, the awkward band member girl, being sexualized at an early age, a mother searching for her daughter (and vice versa, a daughter searching for her mother), and blood from noses, faces, and fingers make visceral appearances throughout all of the films.

Film still from "A Million Miles Away"
Film still from “A Million Miles Away” (2014)

All three films concentrate on similar coming-of-age female characters. The teenagers’ family structures are untraditional, presenting experiences that are less seen in mainstream Hollywood films. A teenage girl deals with her mentally ill mother. A group of girls call out a boy on his sexist behavior. Queer love occurs between two girls but without the heaviness of a “coming out” narrative. It is refreshing to see these types of female characters on screen.

The context for viewing Reeder’s films is located within girl-centric feminist movements, or discussions of “what is feminism?” today. Questions about the adolescent female experience, specifically around trauma, healing, and struggle, and the magic that happens when teen girls befriend one another, come up again and again in Reeder’s films. These big feelings will be best worked out in a feature-length format, whenever that happens.

Film still from "Blood Below the Skin" (2015)
Film still from “Blood Below the Skin” (2015)

Jennifer Reed’s “Blood Below the Skin,” “A Million Miles Away,” and “Seven Songs About Thunder” screened at REDCAT (631 W 2nd St, Los Angeles) on February 22. 

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