Being around an addict is a bit like dancing through a minefield. You try and do your own thing, being attentive to what’s around you, and one wrong step could lead to losing a limb. That feeling is only exacerbated when the addict is an artist in a position of power. This is the tension behind Her Smell, the intense drama by writer and director Alex Ross Perry. Elisabeth Moss plays the addict, a successful punk singer who is unaware of how she sucks energy and goodwill from everyone around her. It is a galvanizing performance that anchors the film, although we have heard this song and dance before.
Moss is Becky, the frontwoman for Something She, a band that sounds like a cross between riot grrrl and bands like Hole. Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin play her bandmates, and together they are convincing rock stars. Their songs are pretty good, too, with Bully and Anika Pyle writing the tunes. Most of Her Smell is not about performing or songwriting, but the long in-between periods where the band waits for the next gig or album. Green rooms and recording studios have a sickly tint to them. There are no windows, and Perry films everyone through invasive, queasy medium shots. His camera attempts a fly on the wall approach, and with no establishing shots in any of these spaces, there is a hellish impossibility of escape. There is no alternative but to reel from Becky’s antics.
There is a touch of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence in Becky’s behavior. She is a drunken misanthrope, and her friends/family have no clue whether she will welcome their presence, or see it as an affront. With their daughter in tow, her ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens) commiserates with Becky’s bandmates, while her longtime manager Howard (Eric Stoltz) tries to cajole her into finishing that show, or recording that next tune. What makes Becky so infuriating and frightening is her unpredictability: She might disarm someone with a compliment, or lash out (she’s also smart and educated, dropping literary references in the middle of her rants). Perry never films her using drugs and alcohol, but they are always around, adding yet another level of uncertainty.
Perry and Moss’ commitment to the character is meant to show how excess can easily slip into something more destructive. A younger, seemingly more talented band of women represent a threat to Becky’s band: They are polished and ambitious, which make Something She seem sloppier. All the narrative twists are predictable because, well, anyone with a passing interest in pop music knows how this story will play. There is the inevitable public embarrassment, and Perry and Moss make it more agonizing than anything in the recent update of A Star is Born. This film is relatively pitiless, exhausting the audience until we acquiesce to Becky’s rage.
There is an abrupt shift about two-thirds into the film. The chaos of Becky’s addiction slips into something more relaxed. Becky is in recovery, living in self-imposed exile, as she ponders a return to the limelight. While there is the sense that she could backslide at any moment, this recovery arc—culminating in an obligatory performance—is more predictable and pat than Becky’s bad behavior. Predictability is not necessarily a bad thing, but Perry’s film overstays its welcome. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, impatience starts to seep in. There are affecting scenes like when Becky sings to her daughter, but they’re bookended by pat dialogue. A lengthy film may convey the passage of time, and such an approach runs the risk of being interminable. Her Smell falls into that trap.
For a film concerned with authenticity and a woman’s place in rock music, it is ironic that Her Smell is written and directed by a man. The film never resolves that issue, leaving a lingering question of how a female filmmaker could have handled this material. Moss’ contribution attempts to sidestep this question, and yet Her Smell ultimately seems like it’s from Danny or Howard’s point of view. And isn’t the point of riot grrrl that female punk rockers are sick of male dominance?
Her Smell opens Friday at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center
Due to a reporting error, this review originally stated that Keegan DeWitt of Wild Cub wrote original songs for the film. Bully and Anika Pyle did.