Life has not been kind to the unnamed girl at the center of Chad Faust’s feature debut, “Girl,” a nihilistic slice of life thriller that never, ever mistakes revenge for moral comeuppance. Girl (Bella Thorne), as she is only ever known in the film (she’s joined by a cadre of others like “Barkeep,” “Sheriff,” even “Town Fuck Up”), is an accidental vigilante, bent on exacting a justice that will do little to truly improve her life, beyond prolonging its pain for more years to come. It’s better than the alternative, however, and when “Girl” opens, even Girl already seems worn thin by the battle to come: in short, to kill her abusive father before he can kill her and her mother (Elizabeth Saunders).
Girl hasn’t been back to her hometown — a seedy Pacific Northwest hamlet named Golden, where the shine appears to have worn off quite some time ago — since she was six years old, when her dirtbag father (John Clifford Talbot) kicked her and Mama out, adding a grievous injury to Mama’s back for good measure. The family has been fractured ever since, but a recent missive from “Daddy” in which he makes plain both his refusal to pay child support and his desire to kill Mama for even asking for it has pushed Girl to the brink. Patricide is a tough enough ask as is, but one thrown into further turmoil with the reveal that someone has beaten Girl to the punch.
Struck in a downtrodden small town where everyone seems interested in what she’s up to, from the creepy Sheriff (Mickey Rourke) to the even creepier “Charmer” (Faust himself) and the potentially helpful Barkeep (Glen Gould), Girl embarks on a quest to figure out who killed her father and why, a desire fueled by equal parts anger and odd curiosity. The film’s predictable plotting is delivered via a nearly lethal combination of obvious twists and a series of face-offs that would be compelling, if not for the exposition-heavy conversations that take place in between the physical brutality.
Still, the themes of the film — the corrosive pain of poverty and intergenerational trauma, the seeming impossibility of breaking the cycle of abuse — are heady enough to keep it from succumbing to its worst impulses, and Faust’s unflinching grasp on the material never feels pandering. That, however, doesn’t mean it’s always able to escape off-kilter inclusions that seemed pulled from entirely different films, like Dillon Baldassero’s elegant score or a few hammy sequences right out of an exploitation film (don’t miss the scene in which Rourke fires a gun at a hatchet tumbling through the air).
Screen Media Films
At least Thorne and company throw themselves into the work with gusto, and the promise of watching her face off with both Rourke and Faust (the rare filmmaker who cast themselves in a role they’re actually well-suited to play) should intrigue a potential audience. Incidentally, “Girl” marks the third Thorne-starring film this critic has reviewed during the past few months of relative lockdown, and while the quality of each of those films has often been questionable, Thorne has consistently been the best thing in each of them. That’s mostly due to her ability to keenly understand what sort of film she’s in, typically more than anyone else around her, and in “Girl,” she finds some compelling compatriots, just as full-out and unfussy in their performances as she is.
As “Girl” grinds toward its necessary conclusion, Faust’s script piles on more twists and turns, revelations that tend to surprise only because it’s hard to believe that Girl hasn’t yet kicked loose every single hornet’s nest in Golden. Rourke’s Sheriff, an early contender for the film’s most obvious bad guy, thanks to an introduction that gets under Girl’s skin, stops lurking in the shadows and reveals his true intentions. Then, of course, everyone else starts hauling out their own (exposition-heavy, to be sure) intentions, forcing both Girl and the audience to sift through a series of declarations that deflate most of the film’s momentum. Hell, that bullet-at-a-hatchet scene might sound insane, but at least it showed some style.
Thorne, however, remains compelling throughout, and even when “Girl” struggles to zero in on what it’s trying to say, its star stays grounded in the deeper meanings. It is, for better or worse, a film about one girl trying to make her way in a world that won’t let her be free, and Faust found a canny actress to bring his “Girl” to grim life.
Screen Media Films will release “Girl” in theaters on Friday, November 20, with a VOD release to follow on Tuesday, November 24.