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MFA
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by Jay Seaver

"Not quite masters, but certainly deals with some bachelors."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Rape-revenge films are kind of nasty things, although this one at least had that it was written and directed by women going for it. That at least makes things a little less creepy and exploitative, if not necessarily different but one can perhaps watch it without second-guessing it so much. It's easier to watch a scene where a woman is painting naked as a sign of reclaiming her own agency where physicality is concerned and feel like that's actual intentions rather than an excuse that way, for sure, although it's still not the most creative way to tell this story.

It takes place on the fictitious Balboa University, where Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) is a sweet young art student, kind of shy, doing work that her professor (Marlon Young) criticizes as being kind of conventional, though her friend and neighbor Skye (Leah McKendrick) is more encouraging. Still, she catches the eye of Luke (Peter Vack), a hunky classmate who asks her to to join him at a party at his frat's house, where he goes more than a bit too far. As is often the case, the school's counselor (Mary Price Moore) is no help, maybe not quite victim-blaming but clearly not advocating for her, and when Noelle goes to Luke to demand an apology… Well, she doesn't get one, but his falling over a railing is a different sort of satisfaction that she wouldn't mind feeling again.

Though less obviously misguided than some of its peers, M.F.A. is still a movie that can't help but feel like the filmmakers are checking things off, pointing out the things that you need to know and they need to say about campus rape culture but not necessarily digging deep into it or using that to establish a specific, unique situation. Noelle takes revenge for herself and others, in ways that are more real-world than elaborate, but finding new inspiration for her art as she stays just far enough ahead of the police to build up a little suspense. And, yes, that "new inspiration" bit is kind of gross no matter who is telling the story, although at least nobody brings up the idea that her horrible trauma may be a blessing in disguise. Director Natalia Leite and writer/co-star Leah McKendrick step fairly carefully in trying to avoid false notes, which gives their movie both a certain earnestness and a corresponding stiffness.

And that makes the more melodramatic parts of the film a little harder to get a handle on. Leite punctuates these moments in memorable fashion - never more so than when she cuts from presenting Luke's fallen body as an inverted cross to a shocked Noelle presented with a disc shape behind her head serving as a halo for an avenging angel - and it's the sort of art reference that could perhaps serve to make one wonder just how much her ordeal has cracked Noelle's mind (or how close she was to the edge to start). That's not really the narrative Leite and McKendrick are going for, of course, so when the story calls for Noelle to do something larger-than-life, there's a bit of trouble breaking away from the lo-fi, earnest tone.

Despite that, the film goes a long way in large part due to a fine performance by Francesca Eastwood. She can rage and boil exceptionally well, and she's fantastic when she most needs to be in the immediate aftermath of Noelle's attack. She manages the contradictory aspects of her character well, too, and not just from scene to scene. As focused as Noelle becomes, she occasionally has a thing going on in the background where she seems to recognize the oddness of her using her sexuality to exact revenge, for instance, and she lets herself "overact" a bit in some scenes, as if she and Leite realize that a kind-of-privileged 22-year-old wouldn't really be rehearsing the way she confronts people in this situation. Most of the rest of the cast has a hard time measuring up, although few get much of an opportunity with the film's episodic nature of finding new predators and victims. Jess Nurse as a fellow survivor and David Huynh as a guy who seems to be trying to do things right wind up making the best impressions. Leah McKendrick writes herself a good part as the best friend, and expectedly does well by it.

It's a bit surprising that "M.F.A." hasn't gotten a bit of a wider release given just how explosively rape culture got placed on film fans' radar with the Howard Weinstein scandal happening right around the same time; that likely makes this sort of film both more satisfying and enraging. It's not an ideal response to that sort of news, but then, part of the point is that there is no ideal response.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31092&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/20/17 00:50:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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