[Fantasia Festival 2019 Review] Knives and Skin is a Psychadelic Parody
“Have you seen Carolyn Harper?” a teaser poster for Knives and Skin blithely asks, an obvious homage to Twin Peaks and its central mystery of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” It’s an appropriate tagline given that Jennifer Reeder’s debut feature owes a lot to that television show, but it also sells the story short. Knives and Skin might appropriate many different genres and content from the 80s and 90s, but unlike Twin Peaks, there’s no real mystery about Carolyn Harper. We know up front what happened to Carolyn. We know who did it. Why they did it. When they did it. We know everything.
Neon red and bisexual lighting is the color of the day in Knives and Skin, a kaleidoscope of colors and genres that, when it works, soars. It begins on an ominous note with Lisa Harper (Marika Engelhardt) practically stalking her way through her darkly lit home, calling for her daughter Carolyn (Raven Whitley), while brandishing a knife. But Carolyn isn’t home. Instead, she’s out with a Andy (Ty Olwin), who thinks he’s getting lucky.
We immediately know she’s a band nerd and he’s a jock based solely on their outfits. Andy wears his letter jacket while Carolyn is literally decked out in full marching band regalia, including her Shako and plume. After a disagreement turns violent, Carolyn is left, dying at the lake while Andy hightails it out of there.
Days start to pass as Carolyn’s disappearance begins to shake up the small, Twin Peaks-esqe town where dysfunction is the word of the day. We know upfront that Carolyn is dead and that Andy is at fault. Again, that’s not a spoiler. Because the script isn’t interested in the mystery of a murdered girl. Instead, while Carolyn’s body continues to do gymnastic feats to keep from being discovered, Reeder uses the death as a catalyst to dive into this odd, small town slice of Americana. What follows is an almost slice-of-life drama about the odd duck townfolk mixed with a subverted take on high school drama. It’s neo-noir of Riverdale as filtered through 80s dramedy anti-nostalgia.
Oh and did I mention it’s a musical?
The script samples all sorts of genres and tropes like this to fully explore the townsfolk. As in a lot of teen dramas and comedies (and pointed out in Easy A), the lessons students in Knives and Skin learn in class always have some thematic connection to their lives. Characters that seem like standard archetypes are torn apart and dissected, like in Breakfast Club. And students break out in renditions of pop songs, like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Picture less Pitch Perfect and more high school choir and you’ll be close. And like songs in musicals, they tend to be the avenue that characters profess their feelings or dark longings or thematic intent.
Much like Twin Peaks or Riverdale, the town is made up of kooky and dysfunctional families. Jock Andy’s sister Joanna (Grace Smith) sells drugs and alcohol-soaked tampons at football games, while her family is imploding. Her dad Dan (Tim Hopper) lives a lie, dressing up for work and spending his day at a quarry, rather than admitting to his depressed wife (Audrey Francis) he’s been fired. Oh and he moonlights as a party clown and is having an affair with Renee (Kate Arrington), who is both high-strung and pregnant, and married to Doug (James Vincent Meredith), the town’s sheriff who seems displeased with his wife’s pregnancy.
From violently depressed mothers to philandering teachers to sex-crazed grandmas, the parents alternate from being virtually non-existent and toxically omnipresent in their teenagers’ lives. And the teenagers struggle with identity, sexuality and sexism on the daily. Carolyn, meanwhile, was a nobody. People barely recognized her existence when she was alive, but now people wax poetically about her and almost deify her, in a way. When a student tries to deflate these false feelings toward Carolyn, he tells Joanna, “She could be mean. Just like you.”
“That’s all we got,” Joanna replies, after a moment of thought.
And as the teenagers cry crocodile tears, Carloyn’s body takes on a character of its own, as if she’s enjoying this from the grave. In fact, her body seems actively in opposition to being examined or found. own examination. When the town stages a giant search party, her body actually rolls away from prying eyes and the camera, as if to say, “No, I’m not important. Watch them.” Because at the end of the day, Jennifer Reeder isn’t interested in a mystery that’s already been solved for the viewer.
So Carolyn’s body rolls down a hill, away from the search party, as a choir version of “New Order” plays.
“How does it feel to treat me like you do?” the song asks, rather on the nose. But that’s kind of the point, yeah? In musicals, secrets, truths and emotional moments are always told through song. But in a twist, this particular song becomes a game of whispers as members of the choir lean over and spill secrets like “I think I’d have to be gone about 10 days before my family noticed.” Heartbreaking or funny little secrets that are typically reserved for big song numbers in musicals are instead whispered and silent as they outwardly sing, “And I still find it so hard / To say what I need to say.” Just another subversion of the genre.
Ultimately, it’s all a bunch of playacting. Girls pretending to be sexually adventurous and splitting themselves into categories: slut or tease. Boys trying to fit into various types of toxic masculinity because they think it’s expected of them. The team mascot, who climbs to the roof of the school, not to jump to his death, but to point to the highway, so he knows that there’s a way out of his hellhole town. It’s all very staged and filled with affectations. A slice of life, filtered through a lifetime of watching twisted versions of American life on television and every high school comedy and drama of the 80s and 90s.
This town has no seedy underbelly that enveloped Carolyn, as it did Laura Palmer. Her death isn’t the harbinger of bigger conspiracies. Instead it becomes a parody of the type of narrative that tries to find bigger meaning in death. Sometimes a death is just that. An accident. And sometimes a town full of misfits its just that.