Even amongst the creative weirdos in her visual arts M.F.A. program, Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) doesn’t quite fit in. She’s a little too restrained, a little too quiet, and her work could benefit from a serious injection of fresh blood — and all that changes when she’s the victim of a terrible act of violence. On the heels of Isabelle Huppert’s lauded turn in Paul Verhoeven’s similarly themed “Elle,” Natalia Leite’s “M.F.A.” is another entry in the rape-revenge genre, with Eastwood’s daring performance emerging as the most compelling element.
“Get messy! Fail! Fail miserably! Make something ugly!” Humiliating Noelle in front of her steely-eyed classmates, her professor (Marlon Young) admonishes the young artist after yet another poor showing. Despite a talent for drawing and painting, Noelle just can’t seem to tap into a creative well, and both her work and her personal energies are suffering because of it. Noelle has her eyes on classmate Luke (SXSW regular Peter Vack), an alluring art-bro who talks just enough nonsense to seem profound. (A long-winded, one-man diatribe about approaching things outside his God-given talent zone is particularly revealing.)
When Luke expresses an interest in shy Noelle, it seems like the start of a new chapter in her otherwise stagnant life. Turns out, Luke isn’t just a douche; he’s a violent and unrepentant rapist. After getting Noelle alone, Luke swiftly assaults her in a wrenching and bravely filmed scene that speaks to Leite’s chops, a sequence that doesn’t flinch at the tough stuff, while remaining committed to paying attention to Noelle’s own experience. Initially bent on justice over revenge, Noelle is eager to report the crime to her school, but she soon realizes that the institution isn’t about to do anything to help her.
Her best friend Skye (the film’s screenwriter, Leah McKendrick) encourages her to keep her story to herself. Even the on-campus women’s group she seeks out is far more interested in providing women with the tools to stay safe, rather than actually working to stop rape at its source. However, Noelle isn’t about to be a victim; she’d much rather be a vigilante. Eastwood happily marries Noelle’s newfound resilience with a believable fragility, in increasingly tricky ways. Alternating between snappy humor (a scene in which Noelle passes off a dead body as an “art installation”) and smartly lensed bouts of violence, “M.F.A.” sees Noelle fully embracing her unlikely transformation.
However, while Eastwood is able to balance the film’s many elements, the feature itself continually falls short. McKendrick’s script ambitiously includes commentary on such timely topics as how institutions handle rape accusations, the different expectations placed on women and men, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, addiction, and complicated sexual power dynamics, along with explorations of creative power, inspiration, and female friendships. They are all worthy issues to dive into, but packed into a relatively short 95-minute feature, they all feel undercooked.
Eastwood, however, harnesses the kind of tenacity she’s previously displayed in films “Final Girl” and “Outlaws and Angels,” adding rich emotional layers to a demanding role. “M.F.A.” might not fulfill its initial promise, but Eastwood makes it clear that her greatest performances are still to come.
“M.F.A.” premiered in the Narrative Feature Competition section at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.