There’s something oddly compelling about Williamsburg, Brooklyn and its extraordinary population of aspiring creative people. Not that I would call myself a fan of either the neighborhood or its explosion of hipster culture, but at the very least there is an inherently interesting vibe to a community populated almost entirely by young-ish people attempting to achieve creative success. Inevitably most of them will fail, and this dynamic of constant competition and perpetual performance is in a way perfect for the cinema and its unique way of compounding artistic representation.
“You Wont Miss Me” takes a blunt look at the psychological ramifications of this pressure on the hipster world and its population of maladjusted 20-somethings still stuck in their youthful ignorance. In particular the film is about the trials and tribulations of Shelly, an aspiring actress with a substantial history of mental illness. She’s played by the quite talented Stella Schnabel (daughter of Julian Schnabel), who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Ry Russo-Young. We follow her through auditions, fights with friends, awkward sexual encounters, and a general sense of malaise and frustration. Yet somehow the rawness of this film’s subject remains potent throughout, and keeps drawing us in.
First and foremost this is a film about performance, and Russo-Young and Schnabel’s success is most indebted to their dedication to this particular theme. Stella not only goes through a series of auditions, which become increasingly strange and jarring, but her addiction to acting in any situation pervades the script. She is constantly performing before both her friends and the various men in her life, most obviously in a sequence set in Atlantic City in which she flirts and screams her way through a bottle of liquor. The clearest manifestation of this theme, however, is her sessions with a psychiatrist at the mental hospital that is used to frame the film. Perhaps the strongest kind of performance of all, Shelly’s confrontation with her doctor brings the rest of her problem into sharper focus.
The ramifications of this inability to stop acting, regardless of the scenario, lead to a dangerous blurring of reality and performance. Nothing is safe or private, as we learn early on in an audition sequence involving Shelly re-enacting masturbation on stage. By the end of the film she cannot tell the difference between feigning anger (sparring with Greta Gerwig in a surprise cameo), and feeling genuine rage for the director holding the audition. This instability markedly improves her acting yet simultaneously makes her hard to watch as she spirals further and further into madness. Schnabel plays the whole thing perfectly, balancing a raw hateful demeanor and a strangely airy loss of reality. There are moments oddly evocative of “Grey Gardens,” a show-business-fractured mind waiting in the wings for poor Shelly. She even has an aging gay drug addict friend who could probably do a killer Little Edie Beale given the right bathing suit.
There are moments in which the film takes itself a little too seriously. Some of the camerawork and editing tries a little too hard to achieve significance, seeming more self-aware and indulgent than thematically effective. The presence of the mental institution lurking at the edge of the screen also gives the story a bit too much of an extreme feel, and while the inclusion of psychiatry is crucial I’m not sure the threat of the institution is totally necessary. Shelly is quite intense a character on her own, especially with such a strong performance by Schnabel, and so the articulation of her mental crack-up really needs very little in the way of self-aware exposition in order to affect an audience. With a central protagonist and concept this strong, the rest of the film should almost fade into the background, quietly supporting its heroine and her darkly compelling story. This won’t be the last we see of Stella Schnabel.
“You Wont Miss Me” is Now on DVD, where it’s accompanied by an essay written by former Spout editor-in-chief Karina Longworth (as well as one from filmmaker Lena Dunham).
Recommended If You Like: “Grey Gardens”; “A Double Life”; “Tiny Furniture”