In Quinn Shephard's Blame, a new film playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, the young multihyphenate not only makes her feature debut as director and writer, but also stars in the film. It's a high school story first and foremost, about a teen named Abigail (Shephard) whose nervous breakdown in class a year prior has earned her the scorn of her classmates and the nickname Sybil.
When a substitute drama teacher named Jeremy (played with just the right amount of aloofness by Chris Messina) takes a shine to Abigail, their relationship grows deeper and dangerous. A forbidden kiss during rehearsal is enough to scare him — though he still thinks of Abigail during sex with another woman.
Though Shephard has crafted a remarkably brutal portrait of high school life, Blame mostly doesn't click together. It shares its fellow Tribeca film Aardvark's lack of understanding of its own rules, obfuscating what's actually happening to the point of incomprehensibility. Shephard also directs costar Nadia Alexander as Abigail's bully Melissa, in a performance so overly broad it becomes unintentionally funny, throwing off the film's balance.
But mostly, Blame falls apart because it has absolutely nothing interesting to say about teacher-student sexual relationships. In fact, between this, fellow Tribeca film Flower and a story on this season of the CW's Riverdale, it's become clear that creators have little left to say in teacher-student sex storylines.
Blame opts to channel its teacher-student story through The Crucible, the play Jeremy and his pupils are studying that semester. In a rather on-the-nose choice, Abigail is chosen to play Abigail Williams, while Jeremy stands in as John Proctor. The sexually tense scenes seem designed to titillate, but a lack of explanation of Jeremy's motives makes them more confusing than anything.
We see a lot of Jeremy's home life, complete with a girlfriend who worries about his path in life. But nothing suggests Jeremy has had a relationship with a student before, nor does the movie seem that concerned with judging him. If anything, Shephard's direction and script come down harsher on Jeremy for avoiding Abigail after their kiss. If Blame were more firmly rooted in Abigail's perspective, this would make some degree of sense, but Shephard opts for an omniscient view that proves perplexing.
Meanwhile, Melissa's high school torture of Abigail intensifies when she learns about Abigail and Jeremy's kiss. Another student, Ellie, clocks Melissa's anger as coming from a place of jealousy. A later reveal about Melissa's character, however — one that comes from out of left field — throws Ellie's diagnosis into question, and makes Melissa's behavior all the more bizarre. There's some truth in there, that one student would be jealous of another student receiving attention from an authority figure in that way. But suffice it to say, Blame winds up muddling its message with an ill-advised twist.
Blame shares its jealousy concept with Flower, another Tribeca film that was picked up for distribution. In that film, a teenager named Erica (played with panache by Zoey Deutch) offers herself up for sex to blackmail men into giving her money. It's a remarkably dark concept, but director Max Winkler mostly has control over the tone — that is, until the movie suddenly becomes about getting revenge on an alleged molester teacher named Will.
Erica's new stepbrother, Luke, accused Will of touching him years before. This is horrifying to Erica, who has harbored a crush on Will for a while. She sets out to seduce him for purposes of blackmailing him, but ends up falling for him. Her attempts to resist her feelings sends Flower into a strange plot tailspin, one from which it never recovers.
Unlike Blame, which aims for sexualization, Flower mostly fails because Winkler loses the plot. Again, however, the teacher-student story relies mostly on expected story beats and never gets to a point of saying something unique.
The same thing happened during Riverdale's first four episodes, which shifted their most promising stories to the backburner in favor of exploring Archie Andrews' sexual liaison with his teacher, Miss Grundy. The story is never presented as anything but sultry and forbidden, with Grundy ultimately receiving no real punishment for her statutory rape of a teenager. In fact, the show puts its only damnation of her behavior in the mouth of Alice Cooper, so far depicted as an unstable and vindictive woman, making her very legitimate concerns read like unreasonable judgment. It's no wonder Riverdale disposed of the Grundy plot in episode four and has barely mentioned her since.
Student-teacher relationship movies are nothing new. From Election to Rushmore to Palo Alto, the genre is well-worn ground by now. So it's weird that, in 2017, we still have so many creators fascinated by this subject, yet they are bringing so little that is new to the table.
Meanwhile, just this month, a Wisconsin teacher received three felony convictions for having sex with a 16-year-old. In Louisiana, an ongoing trial features allegations of group sex between a 16-year-old and two teachers. A former kindergarten teacher in Texas allegedly had sex with four high school students, two of them simultaneously. In Mississippi, a substitute teacher was arrested on two charges of sexual battery for an alleged sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student.
Sexual assault of teenagers by teachers is not the scintillating stuff of cinema. It's a real crime happening all too frequently, with very real psychological and social consequences for all involved. Great films can be made about terrible crimes, of course, but neither Blame nor Flower is a great film. They're merely using a tired story structure and doing nothing more with it.
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