Sunday, March 21, 2021

SXSW with Abe: Violet

I’m thrilled to be covering SXSW for the third time. This year, I’m not in Austin, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Directed by Justine Bateman
2020 Spotlight

Many people experience self-doubt. Impostor syndrome can often set in at the worst possible moments, when work that has been legitimately done to get a person somewhere is invalidated by overwhelming thoughts that they don’t belong there or deserve to have achieved what they have. What that looks like and how it manifests can be different on a case-by-case basis, but those who experience crippling anxiety about the legitimacy of their decisions and their own self-worth can be very much impeded from success. Justine Bateman’s feature directorial debut offers a vivid, captivating vision of inner workings given all too much power.

Violet (Olivia Munn) works as an executive in film development, where she is forced to manage incompetent, lazy underlings and endure minimizing harassment from her boss and studio heads. The main reason she has done nothing to stand up for herself is that her every move and thought is criticized by a voice (Justin Theroux), which she refers to as the “committee” in her head. Optimistic conversations with a loyal friend (Erica Ash) and supportive temporary roommate (Luke Bracey) inspire her to consider something she has never done before – fight back against the committee and take charge of her life.

To convey what Violet experiences in her own mind, this film employs multiple techniques that serve as an assault on the senses. She frequently flashes to seemingly violent and unpleasant memories as the loud voice commands her not to do the brave or difficult thing, and cursive text appears scrawled across the screen to externalize what Violet wishes she could do in that moment. It’s a powerful combination of devices that proves impossible to ignore, and serves only to support the film’s narrative, which extracts key moments from a short time in Violet’s adult life that is evidently representative of a similarly subservient whole.

Munn is a fantastic choice to play the title role, channeling a deep frustration with Violet’s decisions that has built up consistently and yet always been knocked down again by that doubting and demeaning voice. It’s a very impressive performance stripped of any lightheartedness or charm that is slowly injected back in as Violet builds confidence and begins to resist. A flurry of recognizable faces provide support throughout but never distract from this simultaneously focused and schizophrenic portrait. Its denouement comes with conflicted morality, but it’s an entirely involved experience that isn’t easy to shake.


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