I was intending to cover Rose McGowan’s Dawn as part of my Saturday Shorts series. However, this is too good for a quickie entry. Entirely too good. The layers, the meaning, the performances, the nuances of the script – this was the equivalent of a damn fine drink (coffee, whiskey – take your pick). “Well-played” is a label I bestow to something that leaves me smitten and wanting more, something that gets me to feel, something that I get lost in and suspend all disbelief that I am watching a film. I have only given two well-played stamps in my (albeit short) tenure of this blog: one to the Lee Pace/Troy Garity pairing of Soldier’s Girl, and the other to my favorite short film, Frazer Lee’s On Edge. Dawn has officially earned the third-ever Well Played from The Backseat Driver Reviews.
If you haven’t watched it, it’s available to view free of charge.
The first thing that will strike you about this film is its use of color. Points to Starr Whitesides for the amazing job of creating a veritable painting on film. From the pastels of the dresses Dawn (Tara Lynne Barr) to the reds of the rebellious girl Mary (Hannah Marks), it was pitch perfect in conveying who was innocent and who was initiated in the ways of the world (sexually, socially, criminally, etc.). Hats off to Mona May for her work in wardrobe: it was age- and period-appropriate without crossing the line into parody. Let’s face it, some films try to come off as retro when you know that they’re just going for cheap Bettie Page-knock off – this film managed to feel authentic in its costuming. Makeup assisted with this believability as well: we get the waxy, aged makeup of Dawn’s mother,effectively marking her as a type of wax doll – a husk devoid of spirit and care. Likewise, the makeup knew when to be subtle, as with the dark red blood running down Dawn’s face after the rock was thrown at her. It’s wasn’t screaming, “Look at meeeeeeeeee” because it didn’t have to. Much like the costuming and makeup, the lighting in the film starts out bright, then moves to a more muted tone, and finally ends in the dark with headlights and just enough twilight left over to light the way. The progression of colors and illumination work to help us realize just how grim the situation had grown, and managed to do so in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. Even though I knew something bad was about to happen, I studied this one like a painting depicting a terrible act. To say this reminded me a bit of the classical depictions of rape and martyring would be accurate.
In that vein, let’s cut to the chase and talk about the plot. With the posting of this film, McGowan described her piece as a cautionary tale. Written by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, it could easily have gone south without a skilled director at the helm. At the beginning of the film, we see Dawn’s face being lovingly stroked as she’s being told that she can’t go home again. From there, my first thought was, “Great, some moron killed another moron, and now this poor girl is going to have to sell her ass on a street corner to make ends meet in a new town.” Nope. Instead, we go towards a teenager puppy love story, from smiles and giggles and innocent refusals to sneak out of the house to the embracing of awakening desire through the metaphor of gum. Throughout every interaction, Dawn is always in focus. We get attached to this girl, who is the constant on the screen for us. We follow her as she navigates solo through a crush, and tries to learn through a magazine how to connect and keep her love interest engaged. We are led to believe that it’s a relationship that’s going to come into fruition, so when we get to the point of the car ride, we can see rebellion and start to worry that maybe this isn’t the best idea. After all, Dawn is following Tab Hunter’s advice and is acting the part of the perfect girl. The fact that she gets her advice through the printed word of a man is disturbing: we get to see her shaping herself around how someone else wants her to act, which robs Dawn of her agency. We see her conquering her upbringing, going against the rules designed to keep her safe; we see Charlie (Reiley McClendon) appeal to her sense of loneliness/desire for love and his attempts at forging a nice-boy connection with her – a knight in shining armor – to lure her out of that sense of safety and loneliness. We know that she has to grow up, but still, we want Dawn to be her own person; we want her to do something because she wants to, not because she wants to please someone else. Yet, that’s where she, like so many other teenage girls both before and after her, goes. Her decisions quite literally lead her into a dark place, with people she barely knows, who goad her into drinking and shove flasks into her face while she drinks. Once we get to Mary suggesting a dress change, we know that the shit’s about to hit the fan, and it suddenly takes on a dreadful tone. From there, we see her stripped down, humiliated and abused as a rock is thrown hard enough to cut the side of her head. We’re scared at this point that we’re going to watch this girl get raped, and Dawn has been presented to us as someone we do not wish this fate upon. We want her to remain innocent; we want someone to come save her. We listen to her begging to go home. We hear Charlie snap at her, then lead her off into the woods and kill her off camera. In a terribly chilling turn, Charlie’s voice changes and he tells Joe and Mary, “Just wanted to see what it was like.” In the end, Dawn did not matter as a person. It was all an experiment to see how killing someone felt. We basically watched a lamb get lead to slaughter for no greater reason than ennui.
The plot was effective, but it was aided in the way that McGowan crafts the tale. The use of color, music, and, to a certain extent, incidental noises such as crickets and static, builds the tension to the point of creating a sense of dread in the audience. This type of pacing is difficult to master; I can easily name half a dozen directors that need to take Pacing a Film 101. In particular, the exchange between Charlie and Dawn by light of the headlights manages to become staccato without once having to increase its pace, making it more about audience engagement than about the way that the actors are saying the lines. The real point of terror for me came when Charlie calmly explained to Dawn that she’ll tell someone about their little adventure, and implies that he will kill whoever comes after him in retaliation. He breaks down her home as a lonely place where her family is cold and her siblings have abandoned her. In essence, Charlie is attempting to sell her on the fact that any pain and suffering incurred will be her fault. DING DING DING – ladies and gentlemen, we have the oldest rape guilt trip in the book. It’s her fault because she said yes at one point, and any suffering incurred will also be her fault as well. Mind you, looking at the facts of this film, nothing at this point has been illegal (aside from the underage drinking); no one has been fucked; nothing has been stolen. Really, what is the worst that could happen? On the surface, nothing, aside from a stern grounding and a phone call to parents. However, at this point, we all know that this has been a type of rape for Dawn. She has been placed in a situation where she has tried to fit in, has gone in too deep and now wants desperately to go to the state of existence pre-violation of the costume change. She wants her wishes to be respected, and she’s powerless. Part of this is due to the social pressure to say yes in order to please a man. This whole business is a metaphor for rape, and the expectation that she needs to keep her trap shut. It’s victim shaming, which, sadly, women endure from the clothes they wear to the bodily violations they endure. Without having to go for obvious and explicit, graphic depiction, McGowan gives us a metaphor that we can clearly recognize without feeling stupid. And fuck does it make us angry.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the contributions of Barr, McClendon, Marks and Michael Moskewicz (Joe). I’m calling it right now: keep your eyes on Barr. What she brought to this was believable and powerful. Everything I’ve seen her in has shown more depth at each turn, and she’s fun to watch. I expect to watch her work for years to come. As for McClendon in particular – if you can make my blood run that cold, you’re a pretty sly little devil. Slow clap right there. Marks managed to evoke a lot of pity in the shot of her face as Moskewicz holds her during the murder. Really, though, the entire thing was well-acted. This cast worked well. I was impressed. This is coming from someone who considers herself a bit of a prick when it comes to critical darlings; I’ll tell them to fuck the fuck off if they haven’t brought their A-game. For this to be so stylish and relevant, to impact me so deeply… you’ve done something right.
My takeaway from this? We need to let McGowan direct more. This was visually beautiful, socially relevant and well-executed. I can compliment, but rarely do I gush. This is me gushing. If Hollywood can put together remake after remake after remake (sorry, “reboots,” which apparently makes hacking someone else’s idea somehow easier at the end of the day), we can afford to give someone with an eye the time of day. Keep swinging, Rose. You certainly hit this one out of the park. I want to see more.