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Her Smell
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

Elisabeth Moss reteams for the third time with writer/director Alex Ross Perry [Listen Up Philip (2014), Queen of Earth (2015)] for this punk rock chamber piece about the self-destructive lead singer of a fictional ‘90s era riot-grrrl band. Moss plays Becky Something (AKA Rebecca Adamczyk) who fronts a group called Something She, but apart from a few brief glimpses of the band on stage at times that are not exactly career highpoints, we’re left to intuit what made them great from what we gather watching them struggle with the demons of fame, addiction, paranoia, and narcissism. Most of what we see backstage and in a recording studio are Becky’s epic meltdowns and the way she mistreats and psychologically abuses her bandmates, fellow musicians, and the people in her orbit who depend on her. 

Perry cleverly disguises what could be described from a distance as a standard rock-n-roll redemption narrative by getting way up into our faces and forcibly asserting the film’s character-study bonafides. Structuring Her Smell in five acts that are each one long, real-time scene, Perry provides us with only a glimpse into the life of Becky Something yet also forces us to spend more time with her than many audiences will tolerate. Perry’s most frequent collaborator, cinematographer Sean Price Williams, lights and shoots the movie in a frenetic, claustrophobic, unglamorous-to-the-max style that captures Becky’s essence and the spirit of this genre and era in music. 

Moss finds many layers to explore in what could come off as a one-note performance in lesser hands. Her Becky never feels like a caricature of the hard-rockin’ female musicians that clearly inspired the character and the film. And many in the supporting cast also impress with their ability to convey the push-pull of their attraction, repulsion, and dependence on Becky—most notably her bandmates played by Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin and a rival musician played by Amber Heard. But other characters, like the owner of her record label (Eric Stoltz) and her ex (Dan Stevens) feel tediously under-developed, considering the amount of screen-time they get. We see her mother (Virginia Madsen) for briefer and more intriguing glimpses.

Perry clearly loves this era of music—the posters, CD and cassettes cases displayed during the end credits capture the epoch with such authenticity I wish we’d seen them earlier. I’m not sure if the fact we never get to witness Something She performing at the height of their popularity is the movie’s debilitating weakness or a bold, punk choice—maybe it’s both.  Her Smell is not for everyone, but for those who enjoy Perry’s distinctive brand of acerbic, confrontational storytelling (and I count myself among that audience) this is another fine caustic little confection that blends the theatrical and the cinematic.

Twitter Capsule:
Another caustic confection from Alex Ross Perry with Elisabeth Moss as a burnt-out riot-grrrl abusing and disappointing all who care about her. Approach and commitment of filmmaker and cast set this apart from the generic crop of movies about music and fame.

Directed by Alex Ross Perry
Produced by Elisabeth Moss, Alex Ross Perry, Adam Piotrowicz, Matthew Perniciaro, and Michael Sherman

With: Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin, Ashley Benson, Dylan Gelula, Eka Darville, Lindsay Burdge, Hannah Gross, Virginia Madsen, Eric Stoltz, and Amber Heard

Cinematography: Sean Price Williams
Editing: Robert Greene
Music: Keegan DeWitt

Runtime: 134 min
Release Date: 12 April 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color