Published Sep 13, 2018As a general rule, movies about punk-adjacent culture simply can't be done. (A recent exception was Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room, but that might've been because we got to watch the corny movie punks get killed off one by one.) And if anyone most certainly can't make a movie about punk-adjacent culture, it's literary indie faux-teur Alex Ross Perry.
Her Smell is 134 minutes long, and approximately 120 of those minutes offer full-fledged embarrassment chills. The film stars Elisabeth Moss as "Becky Something," frontwoman for Something She — a punky power trio whose rise in the riot grrrl movement resulted in international fame, with all of its accompanying baggage.
Though Perry denied the connection in a post-screening Q&A, Moss is undeniably channelling Courtney Love in the film. Because of movie punk magic, however, this version of Hole sounds a lot more like Live on Release mishmashed with Blink-182 (they even do the same cover of "Another Girl, Another Planet").
When Her Smell starts, we see Becky Something throwing one hell of a hissy fit backstage at a late-era Something She show, long after the band have stopped selling out stadiums and instead pile up blow and chug hard liquor. The claustrophobic and hilariously overwrought shots see Moss deliver faux-theatre dialogue as she writhes around the soundstage and rakes everyone near and dear to her through the coals.
Aside from the odd cut to handheld VHS camera flashbacks (all of which are, again, directly mimicking early Kurt and Courtney tapes), the film spends most of its time in the dim, dank backstage area, and one can't help but fear they're going to be stuck with Becky that whole time. It's a claustrophobic and all-too-upsetting experience.
There are motives and explanations that are never really explored — even Becky's substance abuse issues are only assumed until she mentions sobriety in the film's 100th minute or so. Similarly, we never understand why Becky's manager (Eric Stoltz), bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin) or frenemies (Amber Heard, playing a Lady Gaga type called Zelda) stand by her through her decade of bad behaviour and community theatre-calibre diatribes.
Of course, things do eventually hit the fan for a moment when Becky's unchecked ego (or is it mental illness? Or the drugs she was apparently doing at some point?) winds up pushing everyone away. From there, she works with a young, up-and-coming act (played by Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula) and then eventually fucks that up too. As viewers, we're again forced backstage, then onstage, as Becky has one last tumultuous freakout.
By then, the film already feels too long and torturous, but there's a brief oasis as Becky, now sober, reflects in her countryside mansion and shows off a delightful new demo that sounds not unlike Julie Doiron's most pensive work. (Original songs for the film were written by Bully's Alicia Bognanno.) This entire section of the film offers some much-needed — and fairly engrossing — downtime before we return to the torturous backstage area.
In Her Smell, Moss delivers the sort of jarring and unbearable performance that critics love to describe as brave, but it gives the film a calculated edge that one can't help but scoff at. Paired with the movie-punk aesthetic, the result is a movie that feels like some unholy mix of Josie and the Pussycats and Suicide Squad, with Perry's belaboured dialogue thrown in. The upside, however, is that bad punk movies are still incredibly fun to endure, and now there's another to add to the ever-growing queue.
(Bow and Arrow)