It’s a hungover LA afternoon for Josie (Alia Shawkat), who spent the night moshing off her eyeliner at a punk show, when she receives the call no one ever wants to get. Detectives. A motel. Her phone number. The body’s distinguishing characteristics. With those few words, Josie’s scrappy, dreamy little life crumbles and melts away. Her boyfriend Michael (Rhys Wakefield) has killed himself in a cheap motel in the desert. Any living relatives? A mother.
Actress and filmmaker Amber Tamblyn makes her directorial debut with the grief-stricken fever dream “Paint It Black,” written with Ed Dougherty, adapted from the novel by by Janet Fitch. In the lead role, Shawkat turns in an outstanding performance, that along with her turn earlier this year in “Green Room,” finds the actress stretching her talents beyond comedy. Shawkat’s Josie is a young Angeleno misfit in thrift store leather and ripped tights, wiling away her nights in grimy bars, scraping by with gigs in short films and as a life-drawing model. It’s art class where she meets Michael, a young man possessed of a life of privilege that he doesn’t really want.
After his death, Josie draws the ire of Michael’s ferocious, patrician mother Meredith (Janet McTeer), a world-famous pianist shut up in a rambling mansion. Josie and Meredith share a dependency on two things: alcohol and Michael. In the wake of his death, a blame game turns into a tussle over the last remaining vestiges of him — his journals, his artwork, his things.
Tamblyn brings a bold and creative directorial vision to the aesthetic of “Paint it Black.” While Josie’s world, out and about on the streets of LA is a desaturated, lo-fi grunge affair, Meredith’s imposing home is a chiaroscuro prison. Josie’s world might be a bit shabby and worn, but it’s lived in and warm. The homey nest she made with Michael is an escape from his mother’s home, which is as uninviting as it is impressive.
Nevertheless, Josie gets sucked into the black whirlpool of Meredith, as the women go tit for tat over Michael’s belongings, and ultimately develop a strange co-dependency. Josie’s grasp on reality is made tenuous with booze, exhaustion, and Meredith’s torment. The short film shoot in which she plays a dead starlet bleeds into her paranoid nightmares. Her world of rock shows and parties with friends fades away as she becomes more isolated with this woman with whom she shares a strange bond.
While the highly stylized aesthetic of “Paint it Black” starts off strong, the middle section of the film descends into a bizarre high-camp hallucination almost reminiscent of “Sunset Boulevard” or “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” McTeer’s performance as the foreboding Meredith with her 1950s wardrobe contributes to this sensibility, as she drunkenly careens about her house banging out Brahms on her piano and berating Josie. The story is overtaken by its own style to the point where the story fades away. At a certain point, it’s impossible to think about anything other than the audacious visual choices.
Eventually, “Paint it Black” rights itself, but it’s hard to get back on track as a viewer after the over-the-top, almost absurdly dramatic interaction between Josie and Meredith. The edges of the film, when Josie is in isolation in her grief, find a poetry in her disbelief, her self-destruction, her eventual rise from the ashes. The shared experience with her lover’s mother could have been poignant, but in turning into an acid trip soap opera, the emotional honesty takes a backseat.
As a director, Tamblyn throws everything at the screen, and you wish that some of the choices had been edited down — the color saturation, or the cinematic hallucinations, or the taxidermy and scotch production design of Meredith’s house. But it’s obvious she’s brimming with inspiration and ideas, and there are some sublime moments: the sweaty, glittery abandon of a punk bar, the soft and loving memories of Michael intercut with the sharpness of reality. Tamblyn’s at no loss of interesting things to say and show on screen, and “Paint it Black” has some real gems among the jumble, especially Shawkat, who ably shoulders the task at hand, and gives a raw and sensitive performance of a woman dealing with the loss of a lover far too young. [B-]