Overlook Film Festival 2019: ‘Knives and Skin’ is a Dreamy, Bizarre Trip into a World of Grief

“I don’t like when you do that.”

“What?”

“Touch me.”

Media is rife with teen crime dramas. From Riverdale to 13 Reasons Why, these shows and films are always melodramatic, trying to capitalize on pubescent turbulence. They try to depict the world of teenagers with some kind of reality, as if to connect with a young audiences. However, in Jennifer Reeder’s newest film, Knives and Skin, she paints the world of teenagers as a surreal, anachronistic experience that resembles a dream about to turn into a nightmare, set somewhere between the 1980s and now. But even in this dreamy world that seems to exist in another reality, Reeder still portrays issues of sexuality, consent, and trauma with more care than most teenage films.

High school student Carolyn Harper has gone missing in a small Midwestern town. In the wake of her disappearance, secrets, desires, and love float to the surface as everyone, kids and adults alike, grieve for her. But the audience already knows what’s happened to Carolyn. There is no mystery for the spectator around her disappearance and death; in fact, this really isn’t a movie about Carolyn. Rather, it is about the consequences of the event and the strange coping mechanisms adopted to handle grief. Adults unravel, teenagers grow up too fast, and worlds are turned upside down in dark ways.

The small Midwestern town feels like something birthed from It Follows and Twin Peaks, a surreal place that seems to exist outside of reality. It is an uncanny world, but this gives Knives and Skin space to create something original within a well-tread genre. Each character seems to go through life with an emotional detachment; but there is something deeper under the surface, depicted through long gazes and facial expressions. This is the opposite of melodrama.

Each teenager is slowly losing their innocence, which is only exacerbated by the disappearance of Carolyn. But, Carolyn’s disappearance also makes room for realizations of love; life is too short to ignore one’s true feelings. Two young girls, one a cheerleader (Kayla Carter), the other a jock (Emma Ladji), fall for each other. They exchange love notes and clandestine kisses, finding love in a hopeless place, to quote Rihanna. Another girl, this time the artsy Charlotte (Ireon Roach), is decked out in strange lace capes and glittery lipstick, but this does not deter the interest of a football player. While love grows in darkness, each still grapple with what it means to give and rescind consent, especially when boyfriends call them “bitches” and “whores” or when teachers make uncomfortable advances.

These characters do not only represent diverse sexualities. Reeder casts mostly women of color as her group of teenage girls, creating a psychological teenage drama that doesn’t merely focus on white kids with one token black character. Instead, Knives and Skin features a talented cast that showcases a diverse range of teenage experiences that combines cliques with issues of race and sexuality.

Reeder adopts the usual neon pink and purple lighting aesthetic that colors so many recent horror films. But in Knives and Skin, the neon light is used to highlight youth draining away. Neon pink douses Carolyn’s room as her mom listlessly paces the floor, looking for clues about her daughter’s whereabouts; these unreal colors paint an idealized vision of teenage femininity that this film tries to refute. Paired with the lighting is the film’s music, which is a combination of synth-pop and haunting a capella renditions of popular 80s hits. The score pays an eerie homage to teen films such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But, again, Knives and Skin is an ethereal relative to these teen comedies; sure there are cheerleaders, football games, and awkward liaisons by lockers, but they are something from a parallel dimension, where melodrama doesn’t seep into the hallways.

Knives and Skin takes a well-known story and makes it strange. It makes teenage years feel unfamiliar and foreign, distancing us from the typical melodrama and instead cluing the audience in a different emotional experience. This emotional experience can be uncomfortable but also leans into portraying a complex side of grief where sadness, yet love, lives in the darkness. This is a film that showcases how to explore issues of race, sexuality, age, heartbreak, and death without needing to pour the message on thick. Reeder’s Knives and Skin is a shining example of what horror and thrillers can, and should, be moving forward.

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