If 2019 had one defining theme for me, it was peace. Or rather it was the lack of peace; the insatiable thirst for it. If there’s a reason that selfish, foolhardy and downright grating characters like Her Smell’s Becky Something and Uncut Gems’ Howard Ratner struck such powerful chords with cinephiles, a reason we sat transfixed as they flailed and ranted in their own self-created tempests, I think it’s that there was something universal and relatable in their Sisyphean, woefully wrongheaded efforts to find some shelter from their storms. Even if they were the cause of most of their own problems, the quest to find some harmony was an undeniably resonant thing in a year like this. Harmony felt short on the ground in 2019; for myself, for many of my friends, and for the world at large. I saw loved ones weather great and minor ordeals, confront mortality, and fret about how to survive another day in a country where wages have long-since stopped keeping up with the cost of living. It was a year with its share of tears, both joyful and sorrowful. On the happy end of the spectrum, I married the love of my life, but anyone who thinks planning the happiest day of my life was a peaceful process has somehow managed to avoid every single piece of media made about throwing a wedding. Less than two months before the beleaguered year began, a government study revealed dismaying, altogether apocalyptic findings about our rapidly rising climate. And while we fretted, the floodwaters of brackish acrimony continued to rise unimpeded around the cultural discourse. It was quite simply the most anxiety-ridden year of my life. This probably sounds pessimistic, but I actually write these words with enormous gratitude. The scarcity of peace over those twelve months made me cherish it in ways I never had before. It helped me locate calm within myself and taught me to foster kindness in any small way I could. The hope that everyone finds some kind of tranquility and positivity in these trying times is why I adore Alex Ross Perry’s loud, caustic, and often very nasty musician character study, Her Smell. The year’s most disorientingly toxic whirlwind (give or take an uncut gem) was vicariously cathartic for how it plunged me into another person’s screaming dysfunction while also doubling as a cautiously hopeful prayer for even the worst of us to find something good on the other side of our dark nights.
I will say, right off the bat, that Her Smell is probably the most challenging film to make my top 20 this year. Challenging for its fly-on-the-wall-of-a-tilt-a-whirl cinematography, challenging for its brilliantly discordant feedback squeal of a sound design (so thoroughly fitting for the 90s riot grrrl music scene the film captures), and most of challenging of all for how it attaches itself to one of the year’s most abrasive, repellent characters. Told in five chapters that span from the early 1990s to the present day, Her Smell is the chronicle of an all-female, Hole-evoking alternative rock band called Something She, and its talented, megalomaniacal trainwreck of a frontwoman. Her name is Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss, reliably great and too transcendent here to even discuss in parentheses) and we first get to see her onstage, where she is wholly in her punk element and where her band’s terrific music does most of the talking for her. But then the curtain falls and, much like Llewyn Davis, we see that this great artist might be something of a horrific human being. Having finished one show and walked backstage, Becky immediately begins the even louder performance she regularly puts on for her family and friends. She cackles, screams, and roars like a demented carnival barker. She is both the star of her neverending life story and her very own hype-woman. She guzzles booze and snorts cocaine in front of her 2-year old daughter, and belittles the ex-husband who has clearly only showed up to make sure there is at least one parent present. Her two bandmates, Ali (Gayle Ranking, the picture of selfless humility) and Marielle (Sunset Song’s Agyness Deyn, subtly tremendous as the last line of sanity and sense in Becky’s traveling horror show), love her and fear her in ways that have long since melded together. Becky Something is a self-destructive force of nature, but self-destruction and regular destruction look awfully similar when your livelihood is tied to the destroyer. She torpedoes a fellow artists’ offer to have her semi-struggling band open for her. It seems Becky Something has never met an olive branch she couldn’t turn into kindling. In the film’s second act, we find a drunken Becky and her mortified band mired in a disastrous recording session that is months and months past its deadline and is threatening to drive their put-upon indie label boss (a great and wholly welcome Eric Stoltz) out of business. When a younger band of teenaged girls, who grew up and idolize Something She, show up to the studio for their own session, Becky hijacks them into recording tracks for her instead. By the third act, Becky is showing up hours late to open for the younger group, black-out drunk and with a reality show camera crew in tow. She is cruelly demeaning to her meekly supportive single mother, to her bandmates, to her most devoted acolytes, and to herself. She hits rock bottom in loud, bloody fashion. And then, for the last two chapters of Perry’s film things get a little better, if only because there are few ways they could get worse, short of overdose or suicide. As he showed with his masterful Listen Up Philip (which followed a cruel young asshole’s rise through the world of literary fiction), Alex Ross Perry has a knack for capturing gallingly mean-spirited human beings in a way that is somehow fundamentally humane and empathetic. Perry protagonists are always knocking the wind out of the people who treat them best, but Perry neither wants glorify their clever pettiness nor bury them for their vindictiveness. His films seek grace, for the characters that deserve it and for the ones maybe don’t. Her Smell spends over half its runtime hurtling into the center of a black hole, but what lingers about it is how hopefully, and almost sweetly, it walks back from the precipice of Becky Something’s ruin. Her Smell is a real test of compassion and I don’t know that the average viewer will be able to go all the way with it; to forgive Becky for all her thoughtless cruelty. But that’s rather the point of this film, and maybe of Perry films in general. How much can you forgive someone for their toxicity and selfishness? Welcome to Advanced Empathy Studies. Look at the student to the left and right of you. Only one of you will be here at the end of the semester.
When it comes to plumbing the depths of human pettiness while still maintaining a generous sense of the good in people, Alex Ross Perry has his ideal muse in Elisabeth Moss. Who has now featured in major roles in three of the young director’s last four films. Few things thrill me more than a creative partnership between collaborators that not only work well together, but understand one another intimately. The great acting muses have a deep understanding of their director’s secret sauce; the special ingredient that makes the whole thing work. De Niro understood Scorsese’s nervy, emasculated angst. Marcello Mastroianni understood the thin line between moody genius and egotistical malaise in the films he made with Fellini. And Elisabeth Moss understands that an Alex Ross Perry means walking the knife’s edge of intelligence and insufferable arrogance with humor, finesse, and just the right amount of sympathy for very trying characters. Becky Something is arguably the screen performance of the year, a five-course meal of wit, cruelty, pathos, and deeply-felt regret. Only some five years removed from her stellar work in Mad Men (a role that would canonize her talent if she never acted in another solitary thing), Elisabeth Moss already ahs at least three performances that would have richly merited Oscar nominations (this, her glorious work in Listen Up Philip, and her gleefully unhinged wine mom in 2019’s Us). Very few performers have her capacity for sharp-tongued intelligence and for laying a character’s fundamental insecurity bare with a small facial expression. As much as I have made Becky Something sound like an utter monster in this review, make no mistake that she is utterly, relatably human. This film simply does not work if you do not see the terrified desperation in Becky Something; the frightened adolescent still posturing all these years later under all that running mascara and noxious punk attitude. Even if you turn Her Smell off wishing to never hear Becky Something’s name again, as I imagine quite a few of you will, the towering achievement of Elisabeth Moss’ symphony in contradictions cannot be denied. And if you can manage to look away from her banshee-like tour de force (it’s very much in the nature of this character to never cede the spotlight for more than a moment at a time), you realize that the entire cast is marvelous too. From Agyness Deyn’s listing pillar of big sisterly patience, to Gayle Rankin’s self-deprecating violet, to Virignia Madsen’s quiet mortification as a mother who fears for what is left of her daughter’s humanity. All of these performances are rendered with depth and beautiful specificity and all of them are gasping for some trace of air amidst the tar-black smoke of the Becky Something dumpster fire.
And that, really is what keeps the film anchored in empathy during those first few scenes, when the film is at full demonic tilt and Becky Something is still one-upping her own skill for emotional terrorism. Those scenes thrive amongst the dread and dysfunction because such abundant love and care is put into rendering the small community of people Becky so thoughtlessly brushes past and stampedes over. It is about them too. And it is about them in the way that Beck so relentlessly refuses to let it bea bout them for any extended period of time. In the third act, we get a paradoxical blend of tension and relief in Becky’s tardiness. The one-woman riot grrrl tornado is nowhere to be found, which is obviously not a good thing, as it threatens to sabotage a very big night for a group of thoughtful, talented young women. On the other hand, no Becky means that other characters get to speak. Other characters can let their guards down and talk semi-freely and breathe. And then Becky with her own camera crew and takes her film back from them. What makes Alex Ross Perry’s stories of talented, egomaniacal pricks grounded and humane is that he uses the cruel leads to throw the basic decency of the other characters into bolder relief. If we view his films in a certain way, I think we are being invited to consider ways to be in the world. We can think about others and be good to those around us, and seeing characters like Becky Something or Philip from Listen Up Philip abuse others and make everything about themselves should a wake-up call to return to our own better angels. Long before Her Smell finds some glimmer of hope for Becky, I already cared about those other characters and wanted the best for them. I wanted peace for them before Alex Ross Perry introduced the idea that there could be some small, hard-earned peace for a turbulent, wounded soul like Becky Something.
And, for as much as an Alex Ross Perry film can initially seem like a descend into the most horribly abusive kinds of human behavior, I always leave them wanting some kind of redemption even for its meanest characters. I want them to transcend their smallness of spirit, to find depths in themselves that are equal to the depths of their artistic genius. And if that cannot happen, then what about the art itself? Like Inside Llewyn Davis and Perry’s own Listen Up Philip, Her Smell is interested in the gulf between artist and human being. Art carries a sense of aspiration that we sometimes forget to apply to being a person. Can a vindictive, small-minded human being be reconciled with a transcendent artistic genius? Does a person’s viciousness and meanness diminish the value of their art or make it that much more precious? If a persons’ only true virtue lies in what they are able to create, on stage or on the page, does that make it all the more precious, the one thing capable of preserving some trace of their humanity in the harsh light of their failings as people? Alex Ross Perry doesn’t present easy answers to these questions, but he allows the tension between them to play out bitterly and beautifully. And he creates rich, meticulously observed worlds to explore them in. Her Smell is as vivid and tactile a portrait of the grunge clubs and recording studios of the alternative music subculture as Listen Up Philip was for the publishing houses, cover shoots, and bookstore signings of the literary world. Both films end with credit sequences, composed of lovingly designed fake covers for albums and novels, respectively. They are films that adore art, and which go about the hard business of trying to adore fallible human beings in the same way. In the end, by juxtaposing talent and toxicity, genius and callousness, Perry’s films capture the very best and worst of what human beings can do and be.
And so I left Alex Ross Perry’s dirty, bratty, frequently unpleasant riot grrrl character study on an anxious but altogether rewarding high. I came out on the other side of Becky Something’s foul odyssey, both acutely aware of my own vices and wanting to be a better person; kinder, less brusque and self-involved, more tuned in to all the people struggling around me. And the fact that I was able to get this, not from an umpteenth viewing of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but from a snotty, snarling, claustrophobic film about an obnoxious, self-regarding Courtney Love surrogate really is a small miracle. This film is drenched in blood, sweat, and vodka, but its eyes are looking at the stars. It is an epic redemption story shot through a filthy, hazy DIY lens. It is a redemption story, whether or not you think Becky Something really deserves that redemption or not. I certainly do. But if one can’t entirely forgive a tortured, antagonistic soul like Becky Something, can we at least find it in ourselves to hope they find some small amount of grace for themselves? That they can come to forgive themselves and find some warm center inside free of turmoil, fear, and self-hatred? For all the strife, sorrow, and spite that fills so much of Her Smell, I left it dearly wishing for peace. For myself. For my family and friends. For people I don’t much care for. For anyone in pain, whatever the cause. And for prickly assholes of every stripe.