'Her Smell': Elisabeth Moss Shines In Alex Ross Perry Tale Of Punk Rock Excess [TIFF Review]

Does Hollywood chew talented people up and spit them out, or does the entertainment business attract broken people? Writer-director Alex Ross Perry attempts to put his own unique perspective on the age-old question with his latest feature, “Her Smell,” which follows a self-destructive punk rocker whose life is spiraling out of control. Perry combines a knock-out cast with an incisive script for a wild-eyed musical-drama with poignant themes.

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The film kicks off with grainy VHS footage of a giddy all-girl punk band as they celebrate landing a magazine cover. Going by the name, Something She, the group consists of front-woman Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), and bandmates Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin). Flash forward a decade, and things aren’t so cheery. The band has found success, but it’s taken a toll on them. Becky is now a brash and demanding attention-seeker out of step with the world around her. An addiction to drugs and alcohol amplify her worst tendencies; she blows off gigs and alienates the people around her – including the father of her child. It soon becomes clear that Something She will be over if Becky doesn’t change her ways.

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At 34-years old, Perry has amassed a substantial body of work, and his knack for telling clever stories that resonate with viewers hasn’t gone unnoticed. Here, the filmmaker is working with his most talented cast yet, which is a blessing and a curse. He populates “Her Smell” with so many gifted people that even at 134 minutes, the picture can’t service them all. It’s always great when actors the caliber of Virginia Madsen show up in a movie, but watching her come and go in a blink feels like a tease. These are excellent problems to have, and you could do much worse than rolling out Dan Stevens, Amber Heard, and Cara Delevingne for spot duty.

READ MORE: Elisabeth Moss Channels Her Inner Punk Rocker In First Clip From Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Her Smell’

Let’s make one thing clear: this movie belongs to Moss and Moss alone. When Becky is at her worst, Moss delivers a Godzilla-sized performance. As Becky, she’s a raging narcissist, and impulsive monster, who binge-drinks inside a cloud of cigarette smoke and gets by in life because she has the voice of an angel. You can’t tell if the frontwoman is enduring a bipolar episode or snorted more cocaine than the cast of “Narcos;” either way, she behaves like someone who should probably be institutionalized. Words can’t express the manic intensity raging in her eyes. It’s a bold performance that gives Moss her own Nic Cage moment.

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Moss, one of today’s most talented actors, isn’t loud and abrasive for the sake of going big; this isn’t some shallow rockstar caricature. Plenty goes on under the surface of this complex character. The actress shows flecks of humanity whenever Becky behaves like a monster, and that anchors the performance in her subtle vulnerabilities. Pay attention, and you’ll see Becky’s perceptiveness as she shoots the subtle glances and probing looks of a woman keeping her pain at bay. She lashes out before someone hurts her first and numbs herself to avoid life’s stings. When her bullying intensifies it means Becky feels her suppressed fears and insecurities rising to the surface

Anyone going into “Her Smell” expecting a conventional movie will be disappointed. Perry utilizes a five-act structure and has each segment play out over long, often chaotic takes. During backstage segments, loud, bass-heavy music ceaselessly throbs in the background while characters speak. All the while, the sets  often cramped studios and dressing rooms — can barely contain Moss’ Godzilla-sized performance. Between the abrasive characters, the camera’s tight close-ups, and droning music, “Her Smell” turns into an unpleasant watch. And that’s what Perry is striving for. This picture is about a suffering woman who masks her pain through her addictions — drugs and attention. Once immersed in the story, the viewer feels like Becky, suffocating as she bottoms out. And when the story takes a turn in the final acts, the audience can step back and catch its breath.

When people complain that movies are too predictable, point them towards “Her Smell.” Perry’s large, talented cast tell a story with the in-your-face style of the Ramones and the weary soul of The Smiths. Perry tackles the root of addiction and explores the depths to which we must sink before bottoming out. Actors spend entire careers searching for a role as flashy and nuanced as Becky Something, and Moss makes the most out of every second on screen. Her histrionic self-destruction is worth the price of admission alone. Add in the picture’s 35mm photography, weighty themes, and entertaining musical numbers, and you have a film that is worthy of a spot on your must-see list. [B]

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Here’s a clip from the film: