J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

M.F.A.: Francesca Eastwood Breaks Through

So, interesting timing for this film’s theatrical release. It has been slated for quite some time, lest anyone suspect otherwise. Regardless, the echoes will be inevitable when this brutal campus rape and revenge sort of-thriller opens amid the Hurricane Harvey coverage. It is almost too zeitgeisty, because Francesca Eastwood’s star turn deserves to be considered on its own merits when Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. opens tomorrow in New York.

This subject was already as hot button as it could get. Shrewdly though, it is a hipster art student who will be the initial predator. Noelle’s more conservative paintings are always denigrated in class, whereas his edgy work is always praised. Naturally, she has a crush on him, so she readily accepts when he invites her to his house party. However, he something quite sinister in mind when he takes her to his room to view his etchings or whatever they were.

Even though she was raped, her best friend cautions her to just do her best to move on. Nevertheless, Noelle tries to report it to campus authorities, but finds the trauma counselor is more interested in covering up potential media scandals. When she confronts her attacker he first denies and then gets violent, but he is the one who accidentally dies in the scuffle. He won’t be the last. The freshly empowered Noelle starts preying on three football players who infamously recorded their attack, but still beat the rap. Perhaps not coincidentally, her art also becomes darker and more potent.

Leite manages to walk a fine line, retaining thriller genre aspects without descending into exploitation. She is definitely asking viewers is this what it takes to deter campus predators? It is hard to argue with that during a week like this.

Despite the serious intentions, M.F.A. could have been DOA without the powerful, game-changing performance from Francesca Eastwood (who is also very good in Cardinal X, a film about a very different kind of troubled college student). She makes Noelle’s evolution frighteningly believable every step of the way. Leah McKendrick is also totally credible and ultimately quite poignant as her fellow victim housemate. Most of the rest of the characters are only broadly sketched out, but considering how many are predators, what do you expect?

Viewers should understand M.F.A. shares little kinship with a genre payback movie like José Manuel Cravioto’s Bound to Vengeance (a.k.a. Reversal). There is no reason it necessarily should, but its credentials as Midnight selection at SXSW and a Fantasia selection, now distributed Dark Sky Films could very well create expectations for a very different sort of film. Regardless of current events, anyone interested in the future of film should check out Eastwood’s work. Recommended for mainstream audiences who can handle its uncompromising depiction of tough subject matter, M.F.A. opens tomorrow (10/13) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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