What happens if parents are just as useless and confused about sex and consent as their teenage kids? Troy Michael Bordun talks to Jennifer Reeder about “Bitchy Teases,” motherhood, and teen sexuality in her new film Knives and Skin.
Take one part Mean Girls (2004), one part David Lynch, one part 80s pop song, mix over the Midwestern US, and you’ll have Jennifer Reeder’s Gothic teen noir (what!?) Knives and Skin (2019). While Reeder stated that Knives and Skin is “a love letter to a lot of 80s teen films, as problematic as a lot of those films were,” the film’s narrative frame draws an immediate comparison to Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990–91). Like the TV series, Knives and Skin focuses on the lives of teens and adults in a small town in the wake of a teenage girl’s disappearance. However, Carolyn Harper’s disappearance is not as central as Laura Palmer’s is to Lynch’s cult show; Reeder’s focus is on the town’s citizens as they probe their interpersonal relationships, fetishes, and burgeoning sexuality.
Knives and Skin premiered in mid-July at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montréal, Quebec, Canada. Before its premiere, I spoke with Reeder about coming-of-age stories, sexuality, and the relationship between her earlier shorts and the latest feature film. Reeder noted that many of the techniques, themes, and even scenes in Knives and Skin were first tested out in her earlier work. Her Lynchian style and narrative interest in teen girls’ lives can be traced back through the last decade.
Knives and Skin begins, as the title suggests, with a knife. We cut from the weapon, held by a distraught mother who has discovered her daughter is not in her room, to Carolyn (Raven Whitley) and the conceited jock Andy Fitzmiller (Ty Olwin) at a secluded spot by a lake. This lakeside location will be the last time anyone sees Carolyn alive. The jock tries to pressure Carolyn, still in her marching band garb, into making out, but she won’t have any kissing on the mouth. Her response, “It’s not how you do it,” encapsulates the sexual and psychological tension among characters for the rest of the film. For Carolyn, the “it” is sex and romance, and very few of the characters in this film seem to understand how “it” works. Whether teen or adult, none have the know-how to develop and foster positive, ethical, and consensual sexual interactions with others. Carolyn, here aware of the teenage-mating ritual of losing one’s virginity in the backseat of a car or isolated make-out spot, refuses the more intimate act of touching lips and tongues. Instead, her response suggests that (at least initially) sex is an option so long as it doesn’t include kissing. But, in a change of heart, Carolyn withdraws her consent. In typical sexist form, her reluctance to go all the way with Andy results in derogatory name-calling (“slut”) and he flees the scene. Carolyn gives chase but quickly tumbles to the ground, breaking her glasses and smacking her head (on a rock?) in the process. Andy tears away in his Mustang, leaving the injured girl to die.
From there, characters sometimes wonder about Carolyn while also going about their day-to-day business. The narrative thread is loose, resembling vignettes rather than a straightforward cause-and-effect tale, again echoing some of Lynch’s work. Unable to cope with her daughter’s disappearance, Carolyn’s mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) combs the streets in her nightshirt and woefully begs the town’s residents to assist her. She eventually finds her way into Andy’s blue Mustang and gets a whiff of Carolyn’s lingering resonance. The smell of her daughter on Andy’s clothes produces an erotic charge—Lisa seduces the high school senior, pushing mourning to its borderline-incestuous limit. Similar to Laura’s parents in Twin Peaks—a father and mother who can’t display their grief within the parameters of normal behaviour (a few tears at the funeral and a week off work)—we also can’t identify with Lisa’s mourning: she sometimes operates in an essentially somnambulist state and few viewers would deem her erotically-charged coping mechanisms (she also masturbates in Carolyn’s room) healthy. The director wanted, as she put it, to explore “difficult women,” yet this exaggerated representation of Lisa’s grief, and her portrayal as an unsympathetic mother rather than one we empathize with, suggests that the difficulties of motherhood are less universal than they are unique to each individual. The difficulty here is our lack of identification with a person’s grief; indeed, how do we really know what it’s like for that particular person to lose someone they love? No two losses are the same.
The film suggests that succeeding at motherhood could come at the expense of one’s sense of self. “Oftentimes [motherhood] is where your identity ends,” Reeder told me. “God forbid you’re a mom who has a voracious sexual appetite, or a mom who can’t make a meatloaf.” (Reeder has a great relationship with her 88-year-old mother who always comes out to see her daughter’s films.) Reeder proposes that the adults in the film have their own (second) coming-of-age: they navigate parenting (or lack thereof, as another mom fakes a pregnancy), deal with extra-marital affairs, and manage unemployment. The adults are tasked with reformulating their identities in the wake of these new moments in their life course. It isn’t until the end of the film that some adults come to terms with their errors and consider developing better relationships with their kids, such as Joanna’s mother (Audrey Francis), while others never resolve their problems, particularly the adults involved in the affair.
For teens, on the other hand, coming-of-age means discovering sexuality. Cheerleader Laurel Darlington (Kayla Carter) first tries out boys. She allows Andy to kiss her in the back of his car but quickly decides against it: “I don’t like it when you do that,” she mentions. “Do what?” he asks. “Touch me.” As expected, Andy gets huffy. Later, Laurel shows one of her peers her drawing of a vulva and the two teens discover their mutual interest in women. They flirt, kiss, and exchange love notes and other paraphernalia in the bathroom stalls by first carrying them in their vaginas (Reeder gives us a close-up of the items after they’ve emerged—of course, the notes are wet).
Laurel’s budding sexual relationship starkly contrasts with one of her friendships. Initially, Laurel is at odds with her goth friend Charlotte (Ireon Roach). These two representatives of historically opposed subcultures get catty during a dress-pinning scene early in the film. They brag to each other about how far they’ve gone with boys and that they’ve touched “it” (“Of course, all the time,” and “Constantly”), all while maintaining that they’re neither promiscuous nor frigid. Soon, Laurel snaps at Charlotte, delivering the best quip of the film: “If you aren’t a cunty slut and you’re not a bitchy tease, then what are you?” Charlotte responds that she’s neither, nothing, and nobody. The Madonna/whore dichotomy is later sidestepped as both admit that they were lying about their sexual experiences. “You’re introduced to these characters and you think you have them figured out,” Reeder states, “then they take a sharp U-turn.” Laurel and Charlotte come to “realize that the idea of being a tease or a slut is a complicated dichotomy that affects young people but also adults very deeply. We still live in a world where people want you to choose [one or the other].” (The director brought “Cunty Slut” and “Bitchy Tease” buttons to the Quebec premiere. Reeder wants spectators to decide for themselves where they personally stand. I mentioned that Slutever’s position is pretty clear.)
While the teens grapple with their sexualities, they also need to manage their emotionally inept parents and educators. Joanna (Grace Smith) has a particularly rough time. Her mom refuses any kind of physical contact, she sells her underwear to the school Principal, and she is unwillingly courted by her substitute teacher (after he tasks his students with writing a sonnet about love and attraction, no less) who still lives with his parents. In Reeder’s teenage years, a teacher attempted to seduce her as well, a situation that she didn’t fully understand until adulthood. Teens “are just trying to live their lives,” Reeder notes, adding that “there are real issues around consent in this film. I think we still live in a world where adults can do a lot of damage when they indulge their desires without recognizing personal boundaries.” She goes on to say that these problematic disruptions are the real horrors of Knives and Skin.
Here, Reeder pulls a bait and switch on viewers, not unlike other feminist filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman and Catherine Breillat. For example, in Akerman’s Jeanne Dielmann… (1975), if we’re more horrified by Jeanne murdering one of her johns than by the patriarchal system that has forced her into sex work, we need to think harder about equality, oppression, and feminism. Similarly, Knives and Skin baits us with the mystery of a missing teen then instead provides a story about coming-of-age and the obstacles put in place by adults. Carolyn’s disappearance, then, begins as an issue around consent, but the teens’ general misunderstandings about sexuality stem from the adults’ reluctance to effectively communicate with each other and theirs kids—as well as their inability to treat each other and their kids with respect. Proper sex education and healthier relationships for everyone would then encourage more positive romantic and sexual practices and discourage the kind of treatment Carolyn receives from Andy.
While the tone of the film has a Lynchian-darkness, Reeder’s efforts to “unpack the myth of the mean girl” and examine adults’ sexual and emotional inadequacies turn the film into a comedy similar to Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019). There, the teenage protagonists also grapple with burgeoning sexuality while the adults fail to understand them. The similarities include Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) finally getting a chance to have sex with another girl then blowing it after drinking from a cup of what I assumed to be cigarettes; the Principal (Jason Sudeikis) works as a Lyft driver to earn a bit of extra cash; and Miss Fine (Jessica Williams) sleeps with one of her students (she confirms that he’s not a minor, don’t worry) to help her cope with alienation and loneliness. Both Booksmart and Knives and Skin suggest that even in 2019, teens and adults still have a lot to learn about sex and socializing.
Troy Michael Bordun is a contract instructor in Art History at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and Cultural Studies and Sociology at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.