One of the more interesting aspects of this year’s SXSW Film Festival is how it opened with Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon‘s barbed horror deconstruction “Cabin in the Woods” and then, for much of the rest of the festival, was content with showing movies that reiterated all the bad habits and hoary clichés that “Cabin in the Woods” so effortlessly lampooned. (This includes everything from the failed Clive Owen ghost story “Intruders” to the endlessly misogynistic “V/H/S.”) It was like starting the festival with a documentary about the quagmire in Iraq and then showing a bunch of movies celebrating combat. And while “Girls Against Boys” (which was just picked up by Anchor Bay, which more or less assures its destiny as cult darling) doesn’t totally succeed in its lofty goals, it is one of the more enjoyable entries in the festival, if only because it at least attempts to tease out meaning and subversion in a slate dominated by the same old shit.
“Girls Against Boys” eases us into its premise, as we watch as a perky young New York college student Shae (Danielle Panabaker) tell her school friends that, sorry, she can’t hang out that weekend because she’s going away with her older boyfriend Terry (Andrew Howard). When Terry tells her that he can’t actually spend the weekend with her, instead he’s going to attempt a reconciliation with his wife and (surprise!) he’s got a little daughter too, Shae is heartbroken. She goes to her job (she works as a bartender in some upscale downtown joint) and is spotted crying by her coworker, Lu (Nicole LaLiberte), an ethereal, redheaded waif that looks like the Martian equivalent of Florence and the Machine. Lu suggests that they go party, to rid her of these icky feelings of abandonment and neglect.
So the two party like Kanye and Jay-Z, and at the end of the night they find themselves in the loft apartment of a couple of hipster dweebs. One of the dweebs (the one that doesn’t live in the loft) offers to accompany Shae home, but when they get to her apartment, she says goodnight and he invites himself in, leading to a brief, out-of-focus rape sequence that leaves Shae even more shattered. The next day she meets up with Lu and they go to the police precinct, where they are met with more (male) indifference. While Shae is waiting for her paperwork to get completed, Lu seduces a cop that brushed them off earlier, and then stealing his gun. Many movie characters have threatened to shove a gun up someone else’s ass and pull the trigger but in “Girls Against Boys,” that actually happens, with Lu delivering a lead enema to the insensitive policeman.
When the two girls meet back up Lu suggests that they find the guys responsible for Shae’s rape and take care of business themselves. “I have a gun,” Lu coos, big saucer-shaped eyes peering out from behind a curtain of Williamsburg-approved bangs. So the two embark on a classic tale of revenge, finding the dweebs first, and then the rapist, whose death takes on a cool, torture-porn detachment, complete with power tools and grimy factory setting (the girls even dress up in matching smocks, rubber gloves, and protective eyewear – adorable and deadly!) And for a while the movie coasts on this conceit – that the girls are enacting revenge against not only the men that scorned them (including that cheating professor) but all the men who treat women horribly. They are avenging spirits or something and their socio-political context is amplified by the fact that the movie is bookended by sequences where Shae is in a women’s studies class, being schooled on images and motifs that appear within the film. Occasionally it’s pretty powerful stuff, and while filmmaker Chick Austin (who previously directed the relationship drama “XX/XY“) goes out of his way to subvert the genre, he just as often finds himself stuck in the same tired situations and characterizations.
For one thing, we don’t know a thing about either girl. There’s a great sequence while they’re on their little murderous road trip where Shae asks Lu if she was sexually molested as a child, since that is the easy answer people give when describing an adult’s bad behavior. Lu says no, she had a wonderful childhood, and it’s a good joke. But it doesn’t really give us any real characterization. We know even less about Shae who is attending a tony private liberal arts college (by the looks of it either NYU or the New School) and has an apartment big enough for indoor games of touch football, but there’s nothing about her home life or what led her to New York or why she would so easily go along on a homicidal romp. This would be a trifle inconvenient if it weren’t for the fact that the girls are almost exclusively defined by their interaction with men. It’s not exactly Bechdel Test bad, but it’s sort of shocking, for a movie about female empowerment, for them to have no internal lives or motivation beyond the men who systematically abuse, demoralize, or ignore them. We can tell that they’re strong, we just wish they were fuller.
But that isn’t to say that “Girls Against Boys” doesn’t have its own intoxicating charm, because it does. It’s one of the coolest-looking, most enjoyable movies playing at the festival and while it does include some hallmarks of this year’s slate (rape, excessive violence, woods), it clearly has more going on, with stylistic flourishes and a more laid back sense of pace that illuminates Chick’s interest in European and Korean filmmaking; it’s all moral ambiguity and sexual nebulousness and shots of gun smoke making wispy curlicues around Panabaker’s angelic face. (Both girls, by the way, knock it out of the park and it’s so refreshing to see Panabaker put in something deserving of her considerable and frequently underutilized talents.) The movie has its issues, stumbling when it seems to veer too far into pedestrian homage (the last act is a bit too “Single White Female“) and away from its smarter nods to to the female revenge films that came before it (Panabaker parades around in “I Spit On Your Grave“-style cut-off shorts, even though a far more reasonable revenge outfit was called for). The film also stays away from being exploitative about its comely young stars until it just can’t resist. Still, its questionable politics might make it an even more rewarding film to watch again (and talk about afterwards). “Girls Against Boys” is as messy as it is electrifying. [B]