There is something heartbreakingly compelling about an addict's redemption story. It's the stakes, for one thing, but also the idea -- if we're addicts or not -- of someone finally facing up to the mirror, of learning to care about themselves again (or for the first time), that's inexorably powerful. There is no more anxiety-producing sequence than watching someone who has found peace and sobriety being tempted again into self-destruction.
Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell, about a Courtney Love-esque indie rocker who progressively goes from a professional heyday in the early '90s, to an increasingly chaotic and drug-fueled meltdown, to eventual sobriety and clarity, follows a mostly traditional path, but puts you through long stretches of dissolute anarchy before simmering down into something more emotionally compelling. The mirror motif, exemplified throughout the film, quite literally reflects back on the characters in ways both expected and surprising.
The film is divvied up into five separate sections, delineated by different time frames, distinguished by boxy clips of the band's early, more joyful salad days. We begin already past the initial prime of the band, Something She, with frontwoman Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) in mid-descent of a frenzied disarray (or in her words "on a spiritual journey"). Perry's camera lurches around with her backstage, shuffling from the dressing room with her bandmates, bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn), and drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) as Becky's ex-husband, the former Dirtbag Dan (Dan Stevens), brings their baby daughter, Tama (as a baby played by Clive Piotrowicz), so she has a chance to see her at least briefly before going on with the rest of the tour.
Next, we skip ahead a while with the band, now in complete freefall, attempting to make a new record with Becky near catatonic, holding her guitar and singing softly to herself over a crush of mangled chords. When a young, Becky-devoted new trio (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula) come to the studio to record their own record, their heroine quickly snaps them up, jettisoning her old bandmates in the process, while continuing to burn through the personal savings of their producer, Howard (Eric Stoltz). Becky is deep in what everyone else derisively refers to as "Beckytown," a place steeped in her endless parade of moody, drug-fueled capriciousness.
Continuing the downward trend, the next section is again backstage, with Becky now almost completely lost to herself, a shambling wreck, taking her new young bandmates, along with Howard, Dan and Tama, even her mother (Virginia Madsen), down with her. For all their care, as Dan and her mother lament, everyone around Becky depends on her for something -- money, inspiration, opportunity -- and she doesn't stop until she leaves them all deeply disappointed. The low point of her trajectory ends with her in handcuffs, after attacking Ali with a broken beer bottle, jumping on stage in front of an adoring throng of fans, babbling on the mic before teetering off, bloodied, blathering, and humiliated.
Her redemption, begun mostly alone, comes from her sobriety. Tama, now about 6 (here played by Daisy Pugh-Weiss) comes with her dad and Marielle to visit her at her house out in the country. Becky, now quiet and introspective, carrying the weight of her guilt openly, like a leaden coat, has become much better centered at last. Marielle sees in her a vast change, encouraging her to write music again. At last, we arrive at the film's final act, once again backstage, for a reunion gig with both her old bandmates, and the spunky trio she once adopted, now a celebrated band unto themselves, for a special label anniversary gig.
Perry, ever an elusive, often challenging director, takes a standard narrative swing, and adds more personal flourishes -- from the lively swooping camera lurching around Becky in long single takes during her endless backstage benders; to the ambient soundtrack of bumps, grinds, string gnashings, and feedback chunnels he feeds into the background of her backstage scenes, reflecting her inner disharmony, finally replacing them with the sweet silence of stillness as she sits sober in her house -- keeping it edgy and singular.
He also has a tendency to linger with his scenes, which makes the early backstage material stretch on in intended tediousness, but also provides a more striking contrast when Becky finally gets her life in balance. The chaos of Becky's backstage horror runs for almost two thirds of the film, a daunting amount of time to spend with her, but, much as with her caravan of bandmates and family members, we have no choice but to stay and watch her unraveling unfold.
Anchoring it all is Moss, early on, an emotional dervish in the role, switching from sing-song giddiness to bitter fury in a single beat; and then, sober and vulnerable, discovering her true self, a Rebecca she claims not to have seen since she was 16. It is her emotional through-line that keeps the picture from careening into irritating pathetic fallacy, depicting a woman of endless indulgence by endlessly indulging her moods.
There is also a delicate sweetness to the affair -- and not just from Becky singing an achingly moving cover of Bryan Adams' "Heaven" to her daughter (a version, it must be said, vastly superior to the maudlin original). Perry clearly has a genuine affection for Becky, but also the other battle-scarred women of the indie-punk scene. He has never come across as a particularly emotional director -- his previous films have tended toward distanced deadpan -- but here, his care for his characters is palpable and deep.
In some ways, the film takes on a sort of Raging Bull aspect, Martin Scorsese's classic film about a boxer's rise and fall, only to turn the ending on its head. In Scorsese's picture, we see Jake LaMotta, now fat and retired, attempt to break into showbiz as a comedian, the scenes draped in cutting sardonicism. Perry gives Becky a much less punishingly ironic turn, but instead a hero's journey, venturing away from the abyss into something a good deal less grandiose and realized.
Before her final gig at the end of the film, Becky gathers around her bandmates, both old and new, and her former rival Zelda (Amber Heard), and conducts what she calls a "séance" with them in a circle, each introducing one another, and confirming their support ("I'm here for you, thank you all for being here with me"). Becky, for her part, seems to have finally made the shaky transition from walling everyone off away from her, to allowing others' loving support to protect her with their radiance. We have no way of knowing, beyond the film's last moments, whether her sobriety will hold, but it's clear she's already made the most tricky transition already.
Her Smell is now available on DVD and on digital streaming services.
MovieStyle on 06/14/2019
Print Headline: To hell and back