What a complicated, complicated film 2017’s M.F.A. is, but one thing the premise promised — “Francesca Eastwood gives a breakout performance as an art student who is sexually assaulted at a party.” — is right on point: Eastwood is fantastic in this. And yes, she’s Clint Eastwood’s daughter.
Directed by Natalia Leite in her second film effort, and written by Leah McKendrick in her first feature length film script, who also stars, the film came out right around the time the country (and world, really) was having the #MeToo discussion. Like, seriously, the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations came out in early October 2017 and this film released in the United States on Oct. 13, 2017.
The reason I say the film is complicated is because I’m not sure how well it works and how much it rings true. For example, a basic thing at the start of the film that almost turned me off of the film was Eastwood’s character, Noelle, is showing off her artwork in her class during what’s ostensibly a workshop. During a workshop, fellow artists give their constructive appraisals of the artwork. Instead, the students were oddly brutal and demeaning? One student said Noelle’s artwork reminded her of something a 16-year-old would do. And even the teacher was rather intimidating. It’s the complete antithesis of how a workshop ought to be and how the one I participated in college for writing was, at least.
Then there’s Kendrick’s character, Skye, who is Noelle’s roommate, and a lot of her dialogue, especially early on, is odd? For one, she picks up way too easily that Noelle is off the night after she’s raped. That didn’t ring true to me. But then immediately instead of trying to comfort Noelle, she tells her not to report and essentially move on because the ordeal with the police and school administration will be worse. Especially given how close their relationship seems further on in the movie, and given that we learn Skye was also sexually assaulted in the past, why didn’t she mention it then? Secondly, she’s a better detective than the actual detectives in the movie (it’s almost like she wrote the film and knows who the killer is!) because she deduces rather easily, again, that Noelle is probably the killer and goes searching through her stuff, finding evidence to support her hunch.
Also, and this is the main issue, Eastwood plays the two parts, well, in a breakout star-making way, as the premise teases. That is, she plays the demurring, self-conscious struggling artist at the beginning of the film to perfection. You believe it. Once she’s raped and realizes through her psychologist and her support group (more on that in a moment) that there will never be any justice for rapists, she begins vigilante-style killing them. Eastwood plays the switch to perfection. She’s almost scary because of how much, well, Eastwood-style confidence and swagger she exudes, with a hint of madness behind her eyes. It’s a complete contrast to the artist we saw at the beginning of the film. But herein lies my problem: I don’t feel the “switch” is earned. Folks, there’s a lot of runaway between being a rape victim, and within a matter of two weeks deciding to become a serial killer. Heck, even if you put up a lower third third on the screen that said, “One year later,” after the rape, I would’ve accepted the switch. The switch happens too fast to be believable is all.
But on top of the switch, I don’t understand Noelle’s escalation. So, she kills the first rapist in a rather genius way by drugging him so it seems like he drank too much and choked on his own vomit. But then the next one, she just walks into a party house and bludgeons him against the sink? Then the next one, walks around wielding a hammer and attacks him? And then the next one, she lures him into her car and TAKES HIM TO THE GYMNASIUM OF THE SCHOOL?! Still ALIVE?! She even goes back to the psychologist to blatantly threaten her life. Hello, red flag. I suppose you could make the argument that she was trying to get caught? I don’t know. Trying to prove a point to law enforcement like, “You won’t arrest these rapists, but you’ll arrest me when I try to get justice against them.” Escalation is something you see in serial killers, but again, that’s something that takes time typically.
That said, I do think the support group is a brilliant touch I haven’t seen in a story about rape. Noelle goes to the support group ostensibly to get help at the beginning. But once she’s there, they’re talking about hashtags and wearing color-changing nail polish, and Noelle is like, “Um, why don’t men stop raping women? What’s a hashtag going to do? What if I forget to wear the nail polish?” That made good storytelling sense and felt like it would ring true to real survivors of rape. That, yes, the support group means well, but god, doesn’t it seem so inadequate against the injustice?
I don’t know why I watch these stories that center around a rape. They infuriate me because of how the system is both in the movie and in real life, and of course, the movie is reflecting real life. I’ve personally reported on rape trials, and the rape victim being asked demeaning, humiliating and victimizing questions like, “How much did you drink? Did you say no? How many partners have you had? Did you orgasm?” and so on, are absolutely on point. I believe 100 percent in due process for everyone involved (and obviously, not vigilante killing), but our system sucks at every level from the cops to the lawyers to the judges to the juries to the wider public and everything in between, like school administrations, in dealing with it. Heck, Noelle and Skye even have a conversation about how awful other women are to rape survivors once the latter get the reputation as “sluts.” Gah. Seriously, I felt tense the entire time and would at times realize I was clutching my comforter.
Also, one minor thing that made me laugh is that Noelle gets asked to speak as valedictorian at the graduation where she’s receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree (because of course) and so, one night, she’s typing out her speech on 16-size font. Who writes a story in 16-size font?! My goodness, you monsters.
One thing I’m particularly impressed by is that all three principle people here, Eastwood, Leite, and McKendrick, are women, obviously, so you get the perspective of rape (as well as revenge) through women’s eyes, which is a welcome change, but also, they are all so young! The oldest is Leite and she had just turned 32 when the film came out, so was 31 when filming. Eastwood was only around 24! These are three women to keep an eye on as they continue, well, mastering their art.
Overall, I think there’s a good framework of a story here, and certainly, compelling and noteworthy commentary about rape victims and how rape culture further victimizes such victims, but I do think it falters a little bit under the weight of its story. Like I said, even that little tweak of, “One year later,” would have gone a long way, as well as not making Noelle so blatant in her vigilantism. But if you can stomach films like this (at least enough to watch them), I would certainly recommend it. It’s available for free, if you have Amazon Prime.