Rape is one of the diciest topics for a film to cover. Lean a bit too heavy on stereotypes and it becomes cheapened exploitation. Under develop the concept or characters, and it wades into the waters of insult. The violation of a person’s intimacy is an unfathomable experience, to mock or treat it with folly seems even harsher. Walking into M.F.A., I had no idea which side of this coin Natalia Leite’s latest film would land.
Francesca Eastwood’s Noelle is an artist at her core, yet struggles to identify a source of inspiration that will drive her work past mediocrity within her college curriculum. She also tends to shy away from social endeavors and philosophical discussions. Aside from her best friend, Skye (Leah McKendrick, who also wrote the film), Noelle is ostensibly a loner.
Then tragedy strikes.
Attending a campus party, one stacked with artists no less, Noelle is raped by a suitor and her life is irrevocably altered. Finding no solace with neither the school psychologist nor Skye, she confronts her attacker which results in his accidental death. Noelle is horrified, yet there is something of a tangible relief in knowing that justice has effectively been served. As she summons an emerging strength within, Noelle follows a new path as an avenger of sorts. A vigilante who can punish those who have so casually destroyed lives like hers, all while a detective (Clifton Collins Jr.) nips at her heels.
M.F.A. could easily follow the genre roadmap that staples like Death Wish or I Spit on Your Grave have mastered in the past. Noelle could continually amp up the brutality until we’re left with a pair of buck naked co-eds, genitals strapped to a car battery, begging for penance as the credits roll. Actually, that sounds like a pretty kickass movie too.
But Leite and McKendrick have a deeper palette in mind. Noelle has been broken, yet she is putting herself together stronger than ever before. Seeking lethal justice works as her catharsis for moving past her own pain and perceived weakness, as well as invigorating the artist within. The film also uses this opportunity to create a legitimate conversation on the stigma of rape itself.
Generally in a piece like this, any perceived insight is the depth of a puddle. “Don’t rape or you’ll rightfully have your penis amputated with a butter knife” is the typical conclusion. I don’t disagree with that sentiment, but it also doesn’t leave you with the motivation to elaborate on the context with friends. Instead, I walked out of M.F.A. with various takeaways on the subject. Does “hashtagging the shit out of it” truly raise awareness? Is it fair to subject a victim to demonization in order to prove the horror they suffered is legitimate? If the attacker was murdered in retaliation, is that in any way justifiable? Will rape victims ever receive any semblance of a normal life after suffering through this demeaning torture?
These are the epiphanies genre films rarely land subjectively nor effectively, and M.F.A. is the exception. Much like Get Out, this is a film that forced me to think and reexamine a topic that – as a father to a young woman – I have contemplated far more than I wish was needed. And even with a script and direction that takes a bitter and bold look at these realities, none of it would matter without the powerhouse performance of Francesca Eastwood.
Every now and again, an actor takes a part and makes it known that they have arrived, and Eastwood’s Noelle is one of those. Not a page in the screenplay works if we can’t believe in Noelle’s journey and Eastwood repeatedly ripped the heart from my chest and stomped it with the weight of her portrayal. The trajectory of her character runs the gamut of emotions throughout the course of the film – frail and timid, broken and hostile, focused and vengeful, contemplative and resolved – and by the time my eyes dried, I knew I had just witnessed something special. If we are bestowing awards for off-key musical renditions, there is no excuse for keeping Eastwood out of the Oscar conversation next year.
Not since The Accused has a movie perfectly captured a topic as toxic as M.F.A. does here, and no film at SXSW this year moved me as passionately to push a conversation forward as much as this one. Anchored by a genre-defying performance from Francesca Eastwood, M.F.A. deserves to land at the top of your must-see list.
Starring Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Leah McKendrick
Written by Leah McKendrick
Directed by Natalia Leite