Carolyn Harper, the missing girl at the center of the rather loose plot of Knives and Skin, is only the most pressing and obvious of her hometown’s problems. Jennifer Reeder’s beguiling new film, at first blush, fits firmly into the neon teen wave of contemporary pop culture (think Riverdale, Euphoria, Waves). Like this year’s gonzo sendup of suburbia, Greener Grass, Knives and Skin owes a considerable debt to the work of David Lynch. But Reeder’s effect, while plenty weird, isn’t quite absurd for comedic effect—it is, in fact, at times earnest in the emotions that underpin its bizarreness.
A tiger T-shirt talks to an adult who is so depressed she’s practically bedridden. A teen has a side hustle of selling her mother’s underwear to teachers. A pair of glasses seems to possess magical powers. Girls wear couture to their high school in rural Ohio, and sometimes t-shirts emblazoned with the names of feminist icons like Angela Davis and Yoko Ono. An acapella choir sings tightly harmonized ’80s hits like New Order’s “Blue Monday” and the Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed.”
It’s the rather elliptical brainchild of Jennifer Reeder, a writer-director who calls herself “the impossible lovechild of Maya Deren and Steve McQueen” and whose art-world roots grow above the soil. “I studied filmmaking at art school, where in terms of your creativity, there’s not a lot of rule-following, in terms of commercial viability,” she told Jezebel via phone in November. “I’ve always loved that kind of wacky, unrealistic freedom.” It shows. Shot over the course of 25 days in the summer of 2018 in Lamont, Illinois, with a cast of locals, Knives and Skin is a feminist reclaiming of certain pop culture tropes and depictions, an ode to female friendship, a meditation on bodily ownership in a world you don’t control. It’s dreamlike, prioritizing mood over logic and atmosphere over traditional plot structures. Reeder discussed the difficulty she had getting funding for such an audacious project, her inspirations, and why she thinks coming of age is a lifelong process. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: How did you envision this movie at the start of its creation?
JENNIFER REEDER: Leading up to Knives and Skin, I made a bunch of short films that were related thematically. They’re the distant, smaller cousins of Knives and Skin. They’re often about the lives of girls and women; they suggest coming of age is a lifelong process. There’s usually some sort of dark element, someone missing for instance. People sing. Things float and glow. Perhaps all of the things that people love or hate about Knives and Skin, I’ve worked out through my short films.
I live just outside of Chicago in the Northwest tip of Indiana, and my mother lives in Ohio, so I often drive out to see her, which takes me through these long, winding two-lane rural roads. It’s a very specific landscape, one that hasn’t aged. [While driving], I was imagining a group of goth-punk girls walking along this rural road, for instance on their way to school or band practice. I started getting curious: Who are these girls? What is about to happen to them that will change their lives forever? The combination of that visual and that question is how the whole story spiraled out.
You just said, “Coming of age is a lifelong process.” Can you elaborate?
It’s ridiculous that we expect ourselves and others to have this kind of coming of age when we’re still children, really. We should get together and decide you’re not allowed to come of age until you’re 38, at the very least. We have to decide what our lives are when we’re children. And then if you decide at any point after that that you want to make a dramatic shift in your life, we just don’t have positive terms to describe that. Saying that someone’s having a midlife crisis because they’re reconsidering the path of their life, it’s such a negative term. The way we evolve as humans is to really examine our lives and allow ourselves to change our paths and to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes, rather than carrying the burden of that mistake around until we die. It’s totally unrealistic in terms of healthy, human evolution.
I like writing these stories where the adults are making all the mistakes and really wallowing in their immaturity and the teenagers who are genuinely going through a physical coming of age are the ones who are really the most self-aware and self-possessed. I feel like that’s really true. We are a culture that’s obsessed with youth and beauty. Obsessed! And yet we do everything we can to kind of crush young people.
I imagine it wasn’t particularly easy in this economy to make a movie that is so beholden to its own vision, that takes its time to tell a story, that isn’t afraid of being oblique. Did you have difficulty securing financing?
Yeah, honestly, it’s the reason I made a bunch of short films first. I knew that I wanted to make a film like this totally on my own terms. I started making films in the art world, not the filmmaking world. I studied filmmaking at art school, where in terms of your creativity, there’s not a lot of rule-following, in terms of commercial viability. I’ve always loved that kind of wacky, unrealistic freedom.
But the short films have been vetted through a pretty rigorous film-festival process. They’ve gone to Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam, London. When I was ready to shop the script around for Knives and Skin, there were definitely people who said, “You’re never gonna get this film made, it’s never going to go anywhere.” I would say, “Okay that’s fine. That’s your opinion, man. I’m going to find somebody who wants to take a chance on this film and who understands the road leading to this film.” I worked with producers who I had worked with previously on another feature-length film I directed but didn’t write—a very conventional romantic comedy—so they knew I could come in on time and under budget. They knew I could direct actors. They took a chance on the vision and honored the vetting of the work leading up to Knives and Skin.
That you were able to execute this film with total creative control is a triumph, but isn’t it depressing to have to convince people that your vision is worth manifesting when there’s so much garbage in the world seemingly without question?
Absolutely. I agree with that. It’s funny, there was someone who read the script who has produced a lot of films and who I respect dearly and who straight-up was like, “You’re never gonna get this film made, and if you do it’s never gonna find an audience.” A “maybe Dunkin Donuts is hiring” kind of a thing. I think stuff like that is fuel. I’ve never taken a comment like that and just thrown my hands up, like, “Welp. Okay. I guess that’s that.” I lean into it. “Okay, I’m going to show you.” This person came to me just recently after having seen the film and the news that IFC picked it up and was like, “You proved me wrong. You did it. It’s a really, really great film.”
Making the film and being satisfied with it myself is the goal, but I love it when you can disprove the doubters. I feel really fortunate, now people are like, “Yeah, let’s make your next film on your terms.” I’m not going to say it’s a gendered thing, but I do think there’s a kind of trust gap when a female writer and director goes into a room full of men and goes, “I want to make this kind of surreal girl-power film where people sing and things glow.” That’s not necessarily an immediate “Yes.” But having made it in that uphill, steep, barefoot journey, I’m on the top of that hill. It can be exhausting, but I’m not taking it for granted, and I’ve put myself now where I want to be.
A lot of the writing about this movie already has referred to it as feminist. I wonder what you think of that label.
I love that label. I consider myself a feminist. For me, feminism is just about a commitment to human equality. It doesn’t belong to any gender. It’s a term we can all embrace. Thinking about feminism as being this really broad spectrum, there’s room for the bridezillas and the radical separatists and every sort of iteration of human in between. This film really is a film that’s about female empowerment. At the end of the day, it suggests that female friendship is a survival strategy especially among young women, or between mothers and daughters. It’s a film that is vibrating with femme energy. I remember saying to my DP and gaffer, “I want this thing to feel like it’s drenched in girl-power energy,” like pinks and purples. I don’t mean to be binary—no gender owns pink and purple; that’s why I call it femme.
I thought, too, that it was an elliptical meditation of what ownership of the female body really means in a world dominated by men.
One hundred percent. It’s a very bodily film. It also has to do with female desire on female terms. We take for granted that so many films embrace male desire, even if there are a lot of women in the film.
It seems that there are a lot of blatant references in the movie: Twin Peaks, for one. I wonder if one of your goals was to sort of reclaim writing about girls and women, much of which has been done by men. It seems like you are overtly refracting certain tropes and ideas through a female gaze.
Yes. In a loving way, I have been influenced by David Lynch. I love the way he weaves these bending, trippy stories. I love the way he suggests small-town America is the portal to the fourth dimension. I love the way that he pays attention to production design as a narrative element. I like his stilted, not-so-naturalistic dialogue. But Twin Peaks is still maybe from a feminist perspective kind of problematic, and certainly not very inclusive. My world is at least authentic in terms of casting a wider, inclusive net.
I would also bring up something like River’s Edge, which is also a film about a dead girl and a teen response to that, which I think is a still super interesting and compelling film, but one that also needed to kind of be reclaimed, re-mined. I set out to make a feminist film that had a missing girl as its driving plot point. That’s been a trope of so many horror and thriller films, and one that’s been frankly pretty problematic. Taking on that emblem and making my missing girl really active and willful and keeping the story about her, or keeping the characters’ threads connected back to her, felt like one way to reclaim that trope, flip it, and rethink it under a feminist lens.
With some of the more surreal or magical moments in the film, or even the more absurd moments, I wanted them to still be believable. There’s a scene with Carolyn Harper’s mom in a car with the boy who is the last person to see Carolyn Harper. That scene has been for some audiences confounding—“What is she doing, why would she do that?” What I am getting at [is] presenting a very particular set of coping mechanisms, and I just wanted that to be believable. The horror of not knowing where your child is would drive anyone to act in an extreme way, to act in a very idiosyncratic way. Desire is very personal. Our response to trauma is very personal. I wanted to present that. Even though there are these characters that may appear at first to be unrealistic, by the end of the film, I hope that an audience understands how accurate and authentic they are.
Knives and Skin is in theaters and on demand this Friday, December 6.