Her Smell a Mess that Sometimes Intrigues

Her Smell (2018/19)
Directed by Alex Ross Perry
Gunpowder and Sky, 135 minutes, R (language, drug use, adult situations)

The most accurate way to describe Her Smell is to call it a mess. It's often an intriguing and interesting mess, but it is nonetheless a shambles of a film kept together by music and decent acting.

It's the waning days of punk rock, but the female trio Something She can still command a good-sized audience through the charisma of lead singer and guitarist Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss). That is, when she's not too stoned, pissed off, psychotic, or all three to arrive on time, if at all. She's become an addicted flake who pays more attention to her charlatan shaman Ya-ema (Eka Darville) than to band mates Ali (Gayle Rankin) and Mari (Agyness Deyn). Nor does she give a damn that her tempestuous and  behavior is bankrupting her manager Howard (Eric Stoltz) and breaking the heart of her mother Ania (Virginia Madsen). To top it off, she has an infant daughter, Tama, to her ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens), formerly known as "Dirtbag Danny" but now trying to find stability via sobriety, a new wife, and acting as Tama's only sane caregiver.

Think of Becky as a wigged out self-destructive prima donna. She gets away with a lot because she's the kind of electric personality who can show up two hours late for a gig, sing a song or two, toss her guitar onto the stage, strut off into the wings, and listen to the wild applause of adoring acolytes. Yeah, this kind of shit went down a storm during punk rock's heyday! Then tastes changed, audiences began to notice that their heroes and sheroes were seriously screwed up, and that a lot of them were terrible musicians. The last isn't true of Becky or her band, but when a drugged out Becky commanders a studio where Howard hopes to record a new band, even she notices that The Akergirls have a sweeter, more melodic sound that—in her words—is "what young people are listening to." (Cara Delevigne is a "member" of the Akergirls.) In other words, there are increasingly fewer reasons to put up with Becky.

This is a film about addiction, ego, and wicked bad behavior. It's not structured enough to be a slice of musical history and, at times, it hardly seems structured at all. This is partly deliberate and partially a result of a hodgepodge script. Director Alex Ross Perry opts for a cinéma vérité approach that is effectively jarring in spotlighting how an addicted person's world is a manic series of scattershot bang-bang disconnected episodes that never cohere. Becky's tantrums and narcissism sometimes reminded me of Madonna's Truth or Dare, though Madonna would never be as unorchestrated as Becky. If you're not prepared for this kind of filmmaking, much of Her Smell might seem like anime with live actors. Objectively, it is hard to watch at times, though overall I think the shaky camera documentary approach lent an air of verisimilitude.

In films such as this, though, you know that resolutions are limited: early death, getting clean, or hovering between addiction and sobriety. Was it a mistake to interject a backstory of a daughter? I'd yield to anyone who accused Perry of stitching into a rough-edged film elements of sentimentality and conventionality. One could certainly argue that this is a forced fit. There are also parts that are just plain dumb, especially those involving Becky's shaman. Okay, there are some weird mystics out there, but this character is badly developed and seems more of a cartoon than someone anybody would follow.

Moss is pretty good as Becky, even when she seems to be channeling Courtney Love. Deyn and Rankin are also solid as her band mates. They strike the right balance between concern and screw-you anger toward Becky. Moss provides her own voice in some of the songs–though the band Bully did much of the soundtrack–and though Moss probably won't headline a club near you, she's credible as a snarling punk rocker. She also does a sensitive piano-backed cover of Bryan Adams' "Heaven." We're not talking Lady Gaga here, but Moss is certainly proving that her chops and range are broad and diverse.

Is this movie worth a look? If you can get past the fact that there are more holes in the script than in Becky Something's stage fishnet stockings, yes. But take me to heart. Overall the film is a bit like DYI punk rock. That is to say that at times it's pure shite, but when it rings true, Her Smell rocks you.  

Rob Weir

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