Janet McTeer and Alia Shawkat have intense chemistry in “Paint it Black”

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Janet Fitch’s novel Paint It Black is an intricate exploration of a complex and twisted relationship between two women who hate each other but are drawn together through the loss of a man they both loved.

Meredith has lost her only son, and Josie has lost the love of her life. Set in 1980s Echo Park in Los Angeles, in the chaotic punk scene from where Josie emerges after her lover, Michael, commits suicide, only to become webbed with Meredith, Michael’s mother, Paint It Black is a beautiful, emotional and deeply intricate exploration of grief and the reluctance to let go.

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In true Fitch fashion, the story’s grit comes from brutally honest female voices, laying out every drip of sadness, and every inch of jealousy for the reader to devour. At its very core, it’s about two women’s reluctant connection and inevitable surrender to said connection, finding pieces of the man they’ve lost in each other and clinging to every bit of it desperately. It’s filled with meaty and intense conversations between them, along with some deliciously tense and enjoyable moments of subtext, and in spite of its thought-driven lyricism, it is visual and visceral.

Amber Tamblyn apparently thought it was visual enough to be a movie, and now she has adapted the novel into a film that has had its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival this past Friday. It stars Alia Shawkat as Josie, the girlfriend of the deceased, and Janet McTeer as Meredith, Michael’s glamorous mother and famed pianist.

In her directorial debut, Amber Tamblyn has decided to focus on the main attraction of this story, which happens to be the needy dependence between the two women, jumping right off the bat to the beginning of their tumultuous relationship, which takes off with a drunken phone call soon after Michael’s death.

The Bridge’s Emily Rios and Alfred Molina, among others, make up the impressive supporting cast, behind the leads.  And speaking of which, Shawkat and McTeer lead with surprising chemistry, but more surprising perhaps—in a rare departure from comedy—is Shawkat’s ability to stand toe to toe with Janet McTeer’s imposing, screen commanding presence. Her portrayal of Josie is strong even during the character’s more vulnerable moments.

Like in the novel, the most rewarding scenes in the film are ones where the two women share the screen. The tension between them is both volatile and curious, laced with something a little extra. You’ll enjoy Janet McTeer slapping Alia Shawkat in the middle of a funeral service almost as much as their drunken interactions, including one particular shot of Shawkat’s Josie wearing her dead boyfriend’s button-down while McTeer’s Meredith spoons her as they sleep peacefully in each other’s arms.

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Janet McTeer drunkenly playing the piano, Janet McTeer drunkenly demanding another drink, Janet McTeer in a silk sleeping gown going all Woman On the Verge, Janet McTeer. If there was a two-hour movie about Meredith playing the piano in her silk gown, drunk dialing Josie, telling her “I just want you,” I’d finance it myself.

I did find it to be a little showy. While it was smart to zoom in on the strange relationship between the two main characters and the freaky little world they create for themselves, the film’s obvious David Lynch-esque aspirations fall flat and miss out on some very beautiful—and gay—moments between the women. In an attempt to speedily show Josie’s chaotic environment, Tamblyn uses a number of fancy fading effects to blend shot after shot of time eating—yet beautiful—shots that don’t quite pair up with the more dramatic moments in the movie, which in effect hovers somewhere between fantasy and campy melodrama.

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If you are a fan of the book, which I am, and you loved Meredith and Josie touching, smelling and watching each other obsessively, which I did, the movie will not quite get there the way the book did. It tries, but winds up rushing through it in the end and the reason for Josie’s disillusionment with Meredith is not quite clear and will most likely leave viewers who have not read the book wondering what’s just happened.

It’s definitely an ambitious project, considering it took Tamblyn a decade to get it off the ground, however, sometimes less is more and while the cast is amazing and McTeer and Shawkat have undeniable chemistry, it isn’t enough to save it. If it gets distribution and eventually makes it to digital download, skip to all the McTeer scenes; it’ll be worth it.

Follow Paint it Black on Facebook to find out when it will be screening near you.

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