Newcomer Amy Everson conveys a woman emotionally maimed and tortured in director Jason Banker’s arty, claustrophobic, sort-of rape revenge thriller “Felt” (now on VOD from Amplify Releasing). We never know the source of her sexual trauma because “Felt” dwells only in the messy gulf of “after,” which is a provocative stance for an American indie film to take in a time when questions of abuse and sexual barriers are so embedded in our discourse.
Amy (played by Everson) putters through her days in a stew of despair, and suffers recurring nightmares that replay whatever it is that happened to her. A San Francisco artist, Amy wears a chicken suit and stands outside a fast food restaurant waving her arms around to pay the bills. She has a support system of friends that is foundering. In public, her speech melts into a puddle of sexual baby talk and scatological streams-of-consciousness. You can’t take this girl anywhere.
Finally deciding that suicide and drugs won’t salve her wounds, Amy does find a way to leave her mind. She escapes her trauma by creating and disappearing into grotesque, self-made alter-egos that pantomime and distort the male body. Her early, other selves look something like the anatomically correct, deconstructed Wild Things of Maurice Sendak: But her inventively costumed identities grow far less innocent as Amy wears hollowed-out burlap bags with spooky cartoon faces and drapes herself in flesh-colored tights and a mask shaped like the spongy head of a penis.
Effectively, she becomes a walking, human-sized phallus and eventually puts on a fake dick, testicles, pubes and all. Furthering the “what the fuck” factor is the arsenal of humanoid sex toys she keeps in her bedroom, which appear to be inspired by Japanese tentacle porn (her words, not mine).
Amy bristles against the entire male sex — including in an early and uncomfortable OkCupid date that sours once he learns he won’t be getting any — until she meets affable deadbeat Kenny. He’s played by indie dreamboat Kentucker Audley, whose honest-boy good looks are intended to distract Amy, and us.
Kenny’s impressions of Amy, whose persistently coarse sexual reference-dropping is her only defense mechanism in conversations, range from tenderness to curiosity to disgust. As a character, Amy is patience-trying and extremely hard to like, and while that’s not to say she isn’t plenty full of truth, it’s not obvious why Kenny is attracted to her. We suspect he might be up to something. But there is a sweet girl beneath Amy’s damaged, broken-doll outsides, and Kenny somehow brings her out. He arranges a (vaginally themed) surprise birthday party. All is roses. Until it’s time to go to the bedroom.
Everson makes her brave screen debut in a performance that won Fantastic Fest’s Best Actress prize last Fall. Co-credited as a story writer with director Banker, she apparently put pieces of her own tattered life into the role. Most of the dialogue is improvised, which unfortunately underscores the film’s struggle to stretch its conceit to feature length during a gloomy and expository midsection. But Everson is a clear talent, disappearing into the ugliest parts of a character rattled by a psychosexual grief that the actress/writer clearly knows unnervingly well. I’d love to see her direct, or pair up with fellow budding indie Josephine Decker (“Thou Wast Mild and Lovely”), currently our generation’s best (and most unhinged) answer to a modern-day Catherine Breillat or Jane Campion.
Director Banker’s roots are in cinematography and documentary filmmaking. It shows. He also shoots and edits “Felt,” which has a delicately autumnal, fairytale quality to the look. His fly-on-the-wall chops amply ratchet up tension during Amy’s alone time, and on her outings with Kenny. Banker’s fiction feature debut “Toad Road” more twistingly married documentary and narrative filmmaking: A drug horror tale that follows a gaggle of transient twenty-somethings on an urban legend treasure hunt to Hell, that 2012 film’s lead actress, Sara Anne Jones, died of an overdose after the premiere.
“Felt,” Banker’s welcome directorial followup, takes blunt aim at the left-unsaids of rape culture, burrowing into the point-of-view of a victim whose aggressive meltdown goes mostly unnoticed — which makes this uncomfortably authentic thriller feel all too un-shockingly current. This is a sickening film, and necessary. But Banker and Everson’s aim becomes too blunt and even misguided once the film slips through the rabbit hole of trauma fantasy and into suddenly bloody genre territory. What was it Chekhov said about a pair of scissors?
With each scene, “Felt” oozes a low-key menace that hardly prepares us for the awful inevitability to come. The first hour of Jason Banker’s film offers a textured, specific and creepy study of female victimhood and unspeakable trauma. And then he loses his mind.