Impressed with director Christine Beck’s dedication to her first feature, Katherine Wootton praises the story of two women caught up in a quest for bodily perfection
Californian filmmaker Christina Beck wrote, directed and starred in her independently produced film Perfection that tells the story of Kristabelle (Beck), a retiring and timid woman living with her shallow and overbearing mother Sally (Robyn Peterson), who tries to escape the too-circumscribed life she has constructed.
Emotionally traumatized by abuse in her youth, and seeing her own self-hatred echoed in her mother’s embrace of plastic surgery, Kristabelle (shades of Coleridge, dismissed when we hear she’s named after a movie character) is a secret cutter, hiding her distress and barely speaking until an extreme episode puts her into treatment.
While her mother continues to refuse age and maturity, instead choosing to act out Mrs. Robinson fantasies with local stoner Tommy (Jackson Davis), Kristabelle struggles with her self-imposed exile and reaches out, first to Bobbie (Jahmela Biggs) from her therapy group, then to the appealing romantic interest Simon (David Melville), a recovering alcoholic and struggling actor/comedian. Though she advances in fits and starts, her decision to escape the comfort and relative safety of her obscurity holds. We see her slowly progress, developing the bravery to face her mother and her past, while trying to allow herself to trust again.
Beck begins with a good idea, the relationship between self-harm and the more medically accepted body-modification; both speak to a physical manifestation of the insecurities created and encouraged by patriarchal culture. The relationship between Kristabelle and her mother reflects the fear and denial of aging brought against its irrefutable proof: a child grown to adulthood. Sally wants to remain young, but to do so she must in turn restrict Kristabelle’s growth.
Peterson’s Sally (right) is wonderfully expressive, sharp and vulnerable, used to relying on her attractiveness to be considered worthwhile, defensive and lost when forced to contemplate its fading. Her treatment of her daughter, by turns overly maternal and casually cruel, has clearly shaped Kristabelle’s own hateful self-talk and conviction of her own unattractiveness and, therefore, perceived lack of worth.
The rest of Beck’s cast works equally well. Biggs’ underused Bobbie is natural and compelling, and her disappearance later in the film is a genuine loss: I would have liked to see her form a greater part of Kristabelle’s development. Melville’s awkward yet winning Simon is the most instantly likeable character; despite his own obvious confusions and frustrations he seems sincere and kind, reacting honestly to Kristabelle’s hot and cold. Davis’ Tommy has great chemistry playing stoned with Peterson’s Sally and his awkward confrontation with Kristabelle, though somewhat inexplicable, is effectively emotional. The smaller supporting roles are all strongly and naturally played.
The cast do struggle a bit with the uneven script, which is at times overly expositional and stilted, at others a little too silent. This particularly affects Kristabelle, whose slow change from silent timidity to more vocal determination comes a little too frequently in sudden outbursts of unanticipated anger or intimacy. This happens without the audience seeing any of the intervening stages or thoughts, which then instead read as melodrama. We especially see this in scenes with Sally, where Kristabelle’s rage bursts through without prompt, and with Simon, where what should be a cathartic romantic moment feels abrupt and unearned.
The camera work and editing, too, is a little hit or miss. Director of photography Robert Poswall shoots with an unforgiving and sometimes unflattering intimacy, which fits nicely with the subject matter and tone, but there are a handful of shots that feel unnecessarily portentous and self-indulgent. The same is true of the picture and sound edit – though largely smooth and clean, there are some abrupt cuts and transitions that stylistically do not match the rest of the film’s visual style. Along with this, some surprisingly sloppy sound edits and dubs are noticeable distractions.
The film happily passes the Bechdel test with room to spare. Although Beck dislikes labels and does not consider herself a feminist, her development and treatment of complex female characters, the script’s critical take on the ways in which women are encouraged to think about themselves and the attention paid to the non-romantic elements of Kristabelle’s story certainly make this a more feminist film than most.
Beck (left, with Robyn Peterson and the crew on the set) has a story worth telling, and, as I learned from the Q&A that followed the film, devoted huge amounts of time and effort to seeing it through on an infinitesimal budget while working full time. Although her film has some technical weaknesses, these likely spring from the constraints she faced while filming. The most impressive thing about Perfection is her dedication to completing the project. For a first feature, made independently from what appears to be essentially passion and favours, it’s quite an achievement.
Beck also spoke of a future project and I hope that, with the proper support and time, she’ll be able to produce a more polished film, learning all she has from this labour of love. My first recommendation would be to avoid the notoriously difficult self-directing – the focus of a director and an actor are different since the actor must think entirely of and from their character’s single perspective, while the director has to think of integrating every character’s perspective into a self-enclosed reality and truth for the audience. It’s hard to see what’s missing if you’re trying to do both.
This is a beginning for Beck and I’m interested to see what she creates next.
All pictures are taken from the film’s Facebook page, copyright may be retained.