Genuine compliments are in short supply in Hollywood, so it’s easy to understand why struggling filmmaker Gillian (Gillian Wallace Horvat) can’t shake the ones she does receive — even the strange ones that might creep other people out, like that she’d “make a good murderer.” Gillian is so taken with this little piece of praise — and that she considers it praise is perhaps the first thing you need to know about her — that she opts to turn it into the driving force behind her next project, a mockumentary following her exploits to become a (fake) murderer in a town built almost entirely on artifice. What follows is a biting, often hilarious send-up of the Hollywood machine that sees Horvat gamely tackling everything from bad pitch meetings to true crime obsessions and the corrosive power of creativity, all in one original package.
Strapped for work and eager for someone (anyone) to understand her ideas, Gillian can’t forget the “compliment” a pair of positivity-averse friends recently paid her, so she cooks up a wild idea: she’ll make a movie about her (totally hypothetical, of course) evolution into a murderer. While Gillian’s original concept is built on an idea she doesn’t intend to take to actually violent ends, she makes one big mistake early on: she orients it around someone she’d very like to murder. Gillian’s inability to set boundaries between her personal and professional desires is what ultimately drives “I Blame Society” to some of its wildest ends, and Horvat (playing a meta on top of meta version of herself) smartly introduces that fundamental element with maximum believability.
Gillian’s big idea doesn’t go over so well with her best friend Chase (Chase Williamson, who co-wrote the film with Horvat), who understandably balks at her desire to film herself walking through the (again, totally hypothetical!) murder of his girlfriend, billed as the “most unkind person” that Gillian personally knows and only ever referred to as “Stalin.” Three years later, Gillian’s cute little murder mockumentary is dead, Chase has cut off all contact, and the rest of her career is floundering. Horvat, a prolific producer and short film director making her feature debut here, is clearly writing from some measure of experience, and the scenes in which Gillian attempts to break into Hollywood the old-fashioned way are both very amusing and incredibly disheartening.
There’s her manager, who accidentally FaceTimes her to tell her he just can’t make find a home for any of work, never even bothering to remove the phone from his ear while crushing her dreams. There are the dippy producers (Lucas Kavner and Morgan Krantz) who call Gillian in for a pitch meeting laden with buzzwords but no actual ideas — they want to make films with “strong female leads” that are maybe about “breastfeeding in public” and “intersexuality” (or is it “intersectionality”? they don’t know!) with stories that hinge on the audience thinking “people are white but they’re not” — but don’t actually have the time to hear Gillian’s stories. Even her own boyfriend Keith (indie stalwart Keith Poulson) feels comfortable railing against female filmmakers (they always want the work to have a deeper meaning, plus extra “Latino friends” for their characters), but he really does like to think of himself “as an ally.”
No wonder Gillian can’t let go of the murder concept. In a town built on voyeurism and hyped up on “authenticity” as a commodity, Gillian might be the last filmmaker with an original idea in her head. Too bad everyone — from her charming mother and grandmother to her discomfited friends and a seriously freaked out Keith — hates it. Turns out, you can only hear cheap “you go girl”-isms and calls to do it yourself before you can take matters into your own hands. Charmingly lo-fi in its execution — movie Gillian may have an MFA, but she’s still struggles to operate her own camera; real-life Gillian employed a skeleton crew of mostly fellow female filmmakers and artisans to bring her vision to life — “I Blame Society” soon finds Gillian applying her can-do attitude to a) making a movie and b) maybe actually really killing people.
Inspired by a combination of ruthless research and a somewhat accidental first murder, Gillian plunges headlong into her project, constantly blurring the lines between what’s meant to be art and what’s something much more primal. Horvat’s wonderfully dry sense of humor helps even the film’s darkest moments go down with ease, and her strong grasp on who “movie Gillian” is guides the character through some nutty permutations. Horvat’s obvious affection for mockumentaries, satire, and even horror films help couch the film in genre expectations, even as she’s pulling the strings of something much more complex along the way.
For all its good fun (and there’s so much of it to be found in this wily little movie), “I Blame Society” is rooted in the sorts of ideas that have long driven much darker pieces of confessional filmmaking. Horvat knows how alienating it can be when people don’t believe in your dreams or your abilities, and how that might push even the most clever creator to wild ends. At least she still has some serious fun with it, while still needling at the very institutions and ideas that so often leave artists adrift. (The film’s many pitch meetings alone should be studied for years to come, though surely any filmmaker who might benefit from their humor and insight has been through them before.)
Horvat’s singular vision carries the film through some of its rockier moments — if nothing else, Horvat can always try her hand at cringe comedy, because she’s got the flair and conviction to make even the craziest stuff impossible to turn away from — as she pushes her way toward full-blown serial killer. The eventual twists might shock, but Horvat lands it all with a bruiser of an ending, as funny and scary as anything Hollywood itself has churned out in recent years. If this is do-it-yourself cinema, more filmmakers would benefit from being as laser-focused as Horvat is on making something that truly has something to say.
A Cranked Up Films release, “I Blame Society” is in virtual theaters now, and arrives on VOD on Friday, February 12.