Berlinale 2019: Knives and Skin

You've never seen a coming-of-age film quite like Jennifer Reeder's wild and imaginative teen movie Knives and Skin

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 13 Feb 2019
  • Knives and Skin
Film title: Knives and Skin
Director: Jennifer Reeder
Starring: Grace Smith, Ireon Roach, Kayla Carter, Tim Hopper, Marika Engelhardt

No matter how dry the teen film creative well may appear, every so often one comes along that puts a smart spin on its shopworn tropes. Heathers gave the high school movie a deliciously dark flavour in the late 80s; in the following decade, Wes Craven’s Scream and Gregg Araki’s Nowhere brought horror and punky queerness to this safest and squarest of genres. Knives and Skin, the new film from kickass feminist auteur Jennifer Reeder, is a wonderfully imaginative blend of all three qualities. Expanding and developing ideas from her recent shorts like Blood Below the Skin and A Million Miles Away, Reeder also throws in a dash of Twin Peaks small-town weirdness.

Knives and Skin has its own Laura Palmer figure in Carolyn Harper, a teen girl who’s gone missing from home after being abandoned out by the lake by her knuckle-dragging jock boyfriend. His reason for leaving her in the middle of nowhere? She wouldn’t put out. The girl’s frantic mother swiftly prints off a bundle of Xeroxed posters, emblazoning the town with the slogan “Have You Seen Carolyn Harper?” Carolyn shouldn’t be difficult to spot, given she’s wearing her distinct marching band uniform, although she’d be even easier to pick out if her boyfriend hadn't driven off with her magical glowing spectacles.

Carolyn’s absence sends shockwaves throughout town, although the teens in Reeder’s film are made of tough stuff and seem to take it all in their stride. Love blossoms for three of the girls we’re introduced to. Two of these romances are with each other, and the young women develop their own curious courting ritual involving passing small trinkets to one another between toilet stalls – these talismans include a seashell, a purple man o' war, and a mini-statue of liberty. To add to the intimacy, the girls have been carrying these mysterious gifts around school in their most private of areas.

That’s not even half as strange as the stuff going on with the adults in town. Carolyn’s mother is sniffing a teen boy for clues to her daughter’s whereabouts, a teacher is buying used underwear from his student and a depressed seamstress is taking motivational advice from her talking tiger T-shirt.

Reeder’s film is overflowing with detail. The bedrooms where these teenage girls live and dream are festooned with fairy lights and glittering fabrics, their memories and hopes pinned to their walls. At school, they might be pigeonholed by the general populous, seen as either a brainless cheerleader or a geeky band girl, or by their more moronic male classmates as either sluts or teases, but Knives and Skin celebrates these young women’s multifaceted complexities. Which means as well as being cool and kickass, they can also be, as the President of the US would call them, nasty women. As one of the teen girls notes, being mean is the only defence they’ve got.

There are plenty of illusions to other teen movies throughout Knives and Skin, but what sets it apart is its otherworldly atmosphere. Christopher Rejano’s neon-drenched cinematography and Nick Zinner’s synthesiser score – think Angelo Badalamenti at his moodiest – are the foundations to this uncanny universe where young women have magic powers and deadbeat clowns have the ability to reanimate corpses. Eighties pop music marbles the soundtrack, with characters forever bursting into song: an a cappella version of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun here, a choral take on New Order's Blue Monday there. These over-familiar songs take on rich resonances in their strange new context.

Reeder's let’s-throw-everything-in-the-pot maximalism creates a heady stew. There are enough sex, death and askance tangents going on in Knives and Skin that it could have been spun into a punky soap opera. A few of the characters and story threads feel under-served as a result, but then Reeder is an all or nothing filmmaker. Her unbridled creativity is her chief selling point. After all, there are few who could squeeze a celebration of glitter craft and a sly homage to Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels into the same movie.

Knives and Skin had its world premiere at the 69th Berlinale