The ruthless vigilante girl gang at the center of “Asking for It” is introduced to the audience mainly through still photos. Each member has their name splashed across the screen, followed by a quick cut of candy-coated, provocative images — Regina (Alexandra Shipp) licks the sharp blade of a knife, Beatrice (Vanessa Hudgens) models before a glittery background, Sal (Radha Mitchell) leans on a car wearing aviators and a menacing glare. These snapshots seem to imply that they’ve been in the game for a while, their fierce poses standing in for any semblance of character building. Their pasts are less important than their present mission — to reap violent revenge against the men who have sexually assaulted them and their fellow gang members.
Now, the women, who work, play and fight the patriarchy together on a compound in rural Oklahoma, have decided to zero in and destroy the alt-right men’s rights leader Mark Vanderhill (Ezra Miller, serving up a mix of Tom Cruise in “Magnolia” and Milo Yiannopoulos), whose “Men First Movement” (MFM) is increasingly being linked to organized violence and hate crimes.
The photos themselves are extraordinary — still photographer Noelle Duquette captures these magnetic characters in their element, successfully portraying the kind of no-fucks attitude that the film seeks to transmit. Unfortunately, the film itself, written and directed by first-time filmmaker Eamon O’Rourke, lacks this same energy, doing little more than recycling an overplayed story of rape revenge with little to no nuance, and simplifying the complexities of gender politics into an all-out battle of the sexes.
“Asking for It” opens by jarringly dropping us into the middle of one of Vanderhill’s MFM rallies, quickly morphing into an appalling collage of DIY footage featuring fictional men’s rights activists spewing sexist and racist vitriol to the camera as they cock their guns and engage in target practice. It’s meant to be an action-packed opening that hooks the audience in and firmly establishes the film’s villains, but ends up assaulting them with the very garbage the film’s heroes are fighting against, and that most people (especially women) are thoroughly exhausted by.
It doesn’t help that O’Rourke, who happens to be a white man, is one of the assorted figures on screen (at one point, aggressively saying “F*ck these hoes,” and “‘No’ means try harder”). Yes, it’s just pretend, but coupled with Miller’s real-life instances of choking a female fan and posting a bizarre video threatening the Ku Klux Klan to social media, the sequence leaves an awkward taste in your mouth before the movie even begins.
We speed through the rest of the exposition in the film’s first ten minutes, meeting Joey (Kiersey Clemons), as she bikes cheerfully to her job at the local diner in her small town, where she lives with her grandparents. We’re not given any other information about her, and before we know it, she’s been date-raped by an old friend she runs into at work. Her mounting trauma over the event is conveyed via quick-cuts that feel like something out of a horror film, showing her expression drained of its joy over time and her worsening performance at work. While the cinematography by Jendra Jarnagin is often impressive, capturing the drabness of Joey’s inner world reflected around her, and then contrasting it with the neon exuberance of the all-female compound, the film’s erratic editing tries to replicate character development, failing to align us with the main character as she begins her predictable hero’s journey.
After noticing her dramatic shift in disposition, Regina, one of Joey’s regulars, invites her for a drink. She drives her, not to a bar, but to a remote house in the middle of a field (a strange place to bring a recent victim of a violent crime, but sure), introducing her to the Cherry Bombers gang, an all-female, majority BIPOC gang of merciless avengers. Joey watches as the gang saves a woman from her abusive boyfriend in a gas station, beating him up in the process. She’s taken aback, but strangely drawn to their toughness. Regina later entices her to come along as they travel across the state on a “clean up the streets” program, this time targeting Vanderhill, his followers, and the corrupt police chief (David Patrick Kelly) he’s allied with.
Each gang member feels pulled from female girl gang canon — Hudgens channels a watered-down Fairuza Balk from “The Craft” with her double lip rings, heavy black eyeliner, speaking in tired one-liners throughout the entire film (“Who’s the cupcake?” and “She doesn’t belong here,” when referring to newcomer Joey). Shipp gives the film’s strongest performance, though even she can’t build a character out of little more than a vague history of trauma.
“Asking for It” puts men and women in their own fringe camps, erasing the real and complex struggle for women to achieve equal rights, have their stories heard, and to see their rapists and abusers prosecuted fairly. And while the quest for revenge is a legitimate response to sexual trauma, in depicting the fight for justice as a literal assault on men, who are likewise presented as flat, angry red-pillers worthy of destruction, we’re not given the space to think about these issues in any meaningful way. The question of whether Vanderhill and his cronies deserve their violent punishment that they get toward the film’s end is worth considering, but any ambiguity is quickly erased before we have time to process it.
“What those ladies did was absolutely acceptable,” one woman says in a sequence of crowd-sourced videos that plays as the credits roll. “This time, you’re paying the price.”
“Asking for It” is now playing in theaters and on VOD.