Critics' Pick

Paint It Black (NR)

Drama 96 min. May 19, 2017
By Alan Scherstuhl
Amber Tamblyn, the actress, author and filmmaker, doesn't bother with coyness when it comes to her influences. "The movie I saw in my head was Grey Gardens directed by David Lynch," she writes in the press notes for her debut feature, Paint It Black, based on Janet Fitch's 2006 novel. The film itself proves more entrancing than the imitative mashup that logline suggests. Tamblyn (and Ed Dougherty, who co-wrote the adaptation with her) has shaped Fitch's book into an actress' duel and duet in which Alia Shawkat and Janet McTeer torment each other in a starting-to-molder Echo Park mansion. The dress-up and the passing manias are too poisonous to suggest Grey Gardens. Instead, Tamblyn arcs toward Lynch, celebrating and interrogating the roles actresses have played in his films.

Shawkat plays Josie, the lover of Meredith's only son, a recent suicide. The women spend much of Paint It Black stunned, unmoored, almost somnabulent in the present moment but alive in a past that flickers up, in elliptical flashbacks, on the screen behind their eyes. Tears smear their faces in exquisitely painful closeups. Sometimes they're cruel to each other, at war over the memory of the deceased. Sometimes, the women are tender, each moved that nobody but the other could possibly understand her. Sometimes, of course, they are each other.

Paint It Black suffers from some rote and repetitive passages, but the layering and twinning prove arresting both in full scenes -- McTeer is magnificent, with some boozy, discomfiting monologues -- and in grieving, dream-logic montage. And behold Shawkat's face in those many piercing closeups, her mouth parted in trembling disbelief, her eyes leaking over those constellations of freckles. No matter her influences, Tamblyn has filmed something singular.
Amber Tamblyn Alia Shawkat, Alfred Molina, Janet McTeer, Annabelle Attanasio, Emily Rios, John Roberts Ed Dougherty, Janet Fitch Imagination Worldwide

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