Studio: Dark Sky Films
Director: Natalia Leite
Writer: Leah McKendrick
Producer: Leah McKendrick, Mike C. Manning, Shintaro Shimosawa
Stars: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Leah McKendrick, Peter Vack, David Sullivan, Marlon Young, Michael Welch, Mike C. Manning, David Huynh, Melanie Britton
An inhibited grad student’s experience with sexual assault inspires her to take shocking action as a vengeful vigilante.
“M.F.A.” moves fast for slow burn suspense. Engage with it only on a revenge fantasy entertainment level and you might miss everything the film accomplishes artistically and thematically through its subtext.
We meet Noelle, a visual arts graduate student, as she presents a painting to her class for group evaluation. Professor and peer comments are bluntly unflattering, albeit in a manner meant to inspire the young woman and push her to stop conforming to safe, familiar boundaries.
Such a scene seems intended to establish Noelle’s starting point as someone reserved, introspective, and certainly uncomfortable as the center of attention. This may be the primary purpose. But the secondary one is equally important, if not more.
It’s known from the premise that Noelle is fated to experience a traumatic assault. The real showcase in this introductory scene is its function as foreshadowing for how Noelle ends up regarded as a victim. In front of her class she is vulnerable, helpless, anxious, and under an intense microscope of judgment. Except this scrutinizing is officially sanctioned and considered acceptable, even required. The parallel in play here specifically ponders the culpability of social conditioning in creating patterns of victimization many may not even notice.
Noelle is only mildly introverted, not really a bookish wallflower. Still, she can’t quite believe Luke, the heartthrob hotshot from art class, invited her to his place for a party. Noelle’s reciprocated affection turns to revulsion though, when Luke’s passionate kissing becomes perverted petting, and then becomes something far worse.
Every move “M.F.A.” makes is done deftly and done deliberately. When Luke rapes Noelle, the camera captures the crux in one unedited take, making the moment as naked as Noelle and allowing her horror to scream for itself. When a fellow rape survivor recounts her own experience over conversation later, a handheld camera comes in close and sways subtly from side to side, replicating a slightly nauseous effect that mirrors the memory’s emotion. Director Natalia Leite and D.P. Aaron Kovalchik think through their intent in each individual shot. There are no unimportant details. Every inclusion plays an intelligently plotted purpose.
As Noelle’s post-rape transformation takes center stage, that fellow survivor, whom police once dismissed as a promiscuous liar, and a secondary investigative detective appear like superfluous players in a storyline that has moved past their necessity. Then they have a scene together where the detective asks the woman for assistance that might solve the case, giving her the turned worm opportunity to slam the door in his face with a, “you expect ME to help YOU?”
Every moment also has a meaning. And it isn’t always the obvious one, if it is immediately obvious at all.
Leah McKendrick’s screenplay is assertive in its timely tackling of contemporary rape culture, yet careful to not aggressively make assumptions or narrowly focus underlying issues. A man committed Noelle’s rape, but this is not necessarily a gender versus gender concern. The friend who tries talking Noelle out of telling authorities is her flirtatious female roommate. The administrative official responding to Noelle’s report with accusatory questions is also a woman. Problematic behavior is systemic, and the power dominating those who are marginalized can be wielded by established institutions, or anyone we come to believe we can trust.
Singling out any highlight as “M.F.A.’s” top does a disservice to how many components are essential in creating a multilayered experience of cinematic suspense and social commentary. But no discussion of the movie can conclude without acknowledging Francesca Eastwood’s outstandingly effective and affecting portrayal of Noelle.
Francesca Eastwood creates a complete, complex character almost exclusively through her eyes. Not by scrunching eyelids to show anger. Not by furrowing her brow to emote confusion. Eastwood’s performance is powered by emotion as opposed to physicality. She first firms Noelle’s persona in her head and only then shows us everything going on right there in her face.
“M.F.A” examines several perspectives, perhaps leaning toward one more than the other, but giving multiple notions their day in court without feeling noncommittal about the statements it wishes to make. The message always involves empowerment, right through an ending that is hopeful in its hopelessness, making for a depressingly apt metaphor about there being no happy outcomes when it comes to sexual trauma. Punishment, prison, even death for perpetrators provides limited solace while suffering, healing, and metamorphosis remain ongoing processes for victims.
Rape/revenge thrillers are usually of the sleazily exploitive variety, or else lean into Lifetime MOW cautionary tale territory. “M.F.A” keeps its feet on solider ground, and is a more richly rewarding movie for it.
On its surface, “M.F.A.” satiates appetites for slasher suspense with gruesome visual gusto to match psychological intensity percolating underneath. Though suggestive insight into cause and effect regarding all radiating crimes is where the movie really makes it mark, haunting the head with provocative questions while hitting hard in the heart with righteous rage.
Review Score: 85