Long before struggling actress Pearl (Isabelle Fuhrmann) finds herself at the mercy of a powerful man who demands sex in exchange for her career advancement, she’s already been violated by another person bent on trading on Pearl’s personal trauma for their own ends. That Deborah Kampmeier’s “Tape” — per a title card, “based on true events” — is unable to reckon with the implications of its own plot in service to a story about pervasive sexual misconduct is one of many missteps the lo-fi #MeToo drama makes, highlighting how far even the most eager of allies still has to go.
At least the film, Kampmeir’s fourth feature (she’s likely best known for her similarly discomfiting drama “Hounddog”) has a strong cast in place to help sell its iffy plot points and to gloss over occasionally amateur camerawork. Before we meet wide-eyed, nearly manic Pearl, there’s Rosa (Annarosa Mudd), clearly reeling from her own trauma and working through it by preparing for an upcoming audition. But Rosa isn’t readying a “Titus Andronicus” monologue to present to a bored assembly of casting directors, she’s got far bigger plans. She’s also committing to the bit in shocking ways: piercing her own tongue, slitting her own wrists, shaving off her own hair, all in approximation of the Shakespearean character Lavinia, who was brutalized in similar fashion after she was raped.
No, “Tape” isn’t subtle, and neither is Rosa, who bundles up her bleeding body and hauls off to an audition, where she uses a hidden camera lodged in an unwieldy pair of sunglasses to observe and record the wannabe performers who surround her. That includes Pearl, who catches Rosa’s eye after a small act of kindness to a fellow actress makes it clear she’s different than the rest of the pack (that the gathered actresses all look vaguely the same is one of the film’s smartest pieces of observation).
Muddy camerawork and blinding lighting are meant to approximate Rosa’s hidden camera (a low level whirring noise that occasionally appears in “hidden” shots is one of its more wacky signifiers, as if the obviously digital apparatus was using film instead), and as cheap as it looks on the screen, it does provide a necessary distance between what she’s seeing and what’s actually happening. Perhaps that’s why Rosa feels driven to enact a plan that doesn’t involve saving Pearl from the clutches of skeezy producer Lux (Tarek Bishara) — which at first seems to be the idea behind Rosa’s visit to the audition and her immediate interest in the fellow actress — but of stalking her, filming her, and leaving her to Lux’s machinations, all the better to bolster Rosa’s guerrilla investigation of him.
Rosa — and, it seems, Kampmeier herself — seems to believe that her aim is true, and that whatever material Rosa will gather as Lux uses his usual techniques to wrangle a manipulated Pearl into bed (in service of “acting,” of course!) will be worth it. Knowing that Lux will eventually set up a screen test with Pearl in a secluded loft space, Rosa sets up hidden cameras, hunkering down to capture more footage of Lux harming yet another girl, just as he presumably did to her. Despite a series of wrenching sequences in which Rosa is the only one party to Pearl’s pain, it soon becomes clear she’s not there to help her, adding more trauma on top of an already excruciating situation.
Lux trades on Pearl’s eagerness and naiveté, and while some of his tactics smack of cliche — he promises Pearl he knows best, he knows some of his ideas are “out of the box,” he attempts to tell her what a real pervert would be like — Kampmeier’s scripting is sharp and Bishara’s skin-crawling performance brings it to vivid life. Fuhrmann and Mudd are both in full command of their characters, guiding “Tape” through sticky, sad situations that grow more convoluted by the minute.
Occasionally, it seems as if both Kampmeier and Rosa are righting the ship. During the film’s often compelling second act, as Rosa observes Pearl and Lux’s “screen test,” she desperately puts in a delivery order to a local restaurant, using the address of the loft where Lux and Pearl are “working.” Initially, it looks like a ruse to interrupt Lux and potentially let Rosa swoop in to save a girl enduring the same trauma that has upended her own life. It’s not, instead twisting into a baffling sequence that sees Rosa chowing down on a massive burger in the midst of what she knows is a potential sexual assault, a choice so shallow and stupid, it’s hard to imagine it will lead to worse narrative turns (but it does).
Inevitably, “Tape” will inspire conversations — its woefully conceived final sequence literally begs for them — but perhaps not the ones Kampmeier anticipated when crafting a film that, for all its missteps, is built on necessary storytelling. Even someone as naive as Pearl realizes that the entertainment industry is rife with predators, that the world is not a welcoming place, that even the people who seem like they care will hurt you to get ahead. But does “Tape” know that?
“Tape” will be available via virtual theatrical release on Thursday, March 26, and will be available to stream on Friday, April 10 on Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, and Microsoft.