Sunday, June 5, 2016

ToY (Nut Bucket Films, Easy Open Productions, TwinBrother Films, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I saw Saturday afternoon at FilmOut was magnificent, wiping my cinematic palate clean from the aftertaste of the opening movie, Kiss Me, Kill Me. It was billed as the “Girls’ Showcase” and called ToY — the odd typography of the title was the deliberate choice of its director and co-writer, Patrick Chapman (it seemed odd that a film ballyhooed as being about Lesbians would be directed by a man — and of the two people who worked with him on the script only one, Alissa Kokkins, was a woman; Andrew Hanson was the third co-writer), who was an artist before he got into filmmaking and so far has made only two feature-length movies. The earlier one was called Phin, and like ToY it’s about a struggling artist with relationship problems; also lists Chapman as an editor on the TV series OMG! and as cameraman and editor on a 2011 documentary called Building for Life: Moving AIDS to the Positive Life. In a question-and-answer session right after the showing that featured Chapman, Kokkins and one of the film’s two female leads, Briana Evigan, Chapman said that the basic idea of the title was to say it was a story about two people who “toy” with each other. Maybe that was the original concept, but as he, his writers and his cast developed the project it became something much deeper and richer than that. The promo line for the film is, “Love does not heal the broken,” and indeed that could serve as a summary of the film since the central characters are two people, both deeply wounded by the stressors of life, who come together, briefly make each other more or less happy, but then are pulled apart by their own unhealable traumas.

The film begins with Chloe Davis (Briana Evigan), a 20-something artist from a well-to-do family; her mom died some time ago and her father Steven (Daniel Hugh Kelly) is fighting a losing battle with her to get her into rehab — did I mention she has a drug problem? She’s a movie artist, isn’t she? — and to pressure her to sign away her rights to the money from the family foundation set up in memory of her dead mother. When she isn’t escaping rehab and snorting coke, Chloe is working on an elaborate project documenting the lives of women who make their livings with their bodies — mostly prostitutes but also models as well (and one of the women she hires as a model gets angry when she realizes Chloe doesn’t think modeling and prostitution are all that different). Chloe photographs these people both for still pictures and for video; the stills are often nude or semi-nude and almost clinical in their apparent detachment, but the movies are filmed through smoky or scratched glass that blurs many of the features of the people in them as Chloe asks them about their lives. Most of the prostitutes she interviews are women, but at least one is a male-presenting man and one is obviously Transgender. The central intrigue of the film begins when Chloe meets hard-edged forty-something Kat Fuller (Kerry Norton), who comes into the interview so hostile she won’t even give Chloe her name (“Why do you want to know?” she says), but eventually she opens up while keeping her hard edge. Kat works for a sinister-looking pimp who runs a tire-stripping shop as a cover for his other enterprises, though even he has still other people he has to answer to, and as the story of ToY develops it seems that the pimp owes a lot of money to these mysterious people you don’t want to owe money to, and he’s trying to ease Kat out of his stable to make room for younger and more immediately attractive talent, while Kat is trying to convince him that even though she’s getting on in years in a meat-market profession in which youth is virtually everything, she can still deliver the goods both sexually and financially. In one of her interviews with Chloe, Kat rattles off a string of rules her pimp has put her on: no group scenes, no drug use, no Black clients (“That sounds racist,” says Chloe, echoing our feelings exactly), and above all no falling in love.

Chloe and Kat drift into a physical relationship and seem on some level to be right for each other despite the fact that the principal thing they have in common is sheer neediness. At one point Kat, who’s bought a gun for self-protection but has never used it, takes Chloe out into the country to teach her to shoot — a welcome respite from all the interiors and nighttime cityscapes we see throughout virtually the rest of the film — and later on Chloe’s dad insists that she come to a fundraiser he’s giving at his home for Huntington’s disease, the illness that laid low Chloe’s mom. Chloe dutifully attends and brings Kat as her date — only they get into a flaming argument that ultimately breaks them up. Kat ends up in the hands of a considerably more unscrupulous pimp who gets her hooked on drugs (though in Chloe’s company she’d already started snorting coke; with her new boyfriend/pimp she ultimately ends up on crack) and has her do all the things her previous pimp told her not to: doing drugs with clients, doing Black men, offering herself for groups. Ultimately a biker friend of the new pimp decides to rape Kat and put a bag over her head to strangle her — and this is intercut with a scene between Chloe and a new model for her project, whom she tries to seduce, only to draw back in horror when she realizes this woman isn’t Kat and can’t give her whatever it was Kat was giving her emotionally. Chloe had also noticed a scar on Kat’s body and realized she had given birth through a C-section, and while Kat was typically dismissive of the whole thing — referring to her baby as “it” and saying she gave it away for adoption as soon as possible precisely because she didn’t want to get emotionally attached to her daughter (it’s purely an inadvertent slip when Kat reveals the child is a daughter). Chloe manages to get the private detective hired by her father’s trust to find Kat’s daughter and shoots a video with her in which she acknowledges that the woman who’s raising her isn’t her real mother — though we don’t get told that until almost the end of the movie, when we suddenly realize that this girl who seems unrelated to the main action actually is Kat’s daughter — just as Chapman and his co-writers take their own sweet time telling us that Chloe’s mom’s death wasn’t an accident: she had been struck down with Huntington’s and dad euthanized her.

Since Huntington’s is genetic, Chloe is worried that she too will come down with it and get progressively weaker and more helpless, and by the end of the movie she’s starting to feel tremors in her arms (though it’s unclear whether she really has the disease or this is just the down-side of the mind-body connection, her fear working herself into psychosomatic illness). By this time Kat has long since moved out of Chloe’s loft — though Chloe has asked the detective her family hired to track Kat down — but she’s left a box of possessions, including her gun, and one night after her fiasco with the model Chloe … Charles told me after the movie he’d been worried that Chapman and his co-writers would have Chloe live and Kat die, an ending he would have found classist (the 1-percenters bail their kids out of their problems while the rest of us get overwhelmed by them), but instead Chloe’s suicide attempt is successful while Kat is rescued in time and shows up, badly bruised but still alive, to learn from Chloe’s dad that Chloe changed her will at the last minute and set up a trust fund to see that Kat was taken care of for the rest of her life and never had to do sex work again. “You’ve been given a wonderful opportunity,” Chloe’s dad tells Kat in the same patronizing tone with which he addressed Chloe when she was still alive, with an unmistakable “or else” threat that the trust will be “voided” in case she screws up — and given that we’ve already been shown that Kat is the sort of person with excellent day-to-day survival skills but no particular affinity for long-term planning, we’re left uncertain about her fate and aching for her as the film ends. ToY is a marvelous movie, powerfully directed and written, vividly acted by the principals as well as a fairly large supporting cast (many of whom we only see in the interview scenes Chloe shoots with them); Briana Evigan, who aside from her short hair bears a striking resemblance to Janis Joplin (and judging from her work here she would be an excellent choice to play Janis if she either has a singing voice or they can find her a good double), really inhabits the part of Chloe, and she and Kerry Norton play brilliantly off each other: the airheaded artist whose well-off family has (mostly) bought her way out of trouble, and the over-the-hill sex worker twice her age who’s had to survive as honestly as possible in a hard and mean world.

I found myself wondering if there had been a real-life model to Chloe’s character — by chance I’d read a New Yorker article on the photographer Diane Arbus the day before we watched the film and I wondered if Chapman and Evigan had drawn on her life: Diane Arbus came from a well-to-do family, pursued an above-ground career as a fashion photographer with her husband Allan, then broke up with him and continued to work as a art photographer, pursuing deeply transgressive subject matter — little people, sideshow freaks, street people, bikers, Transgender people — and ultimately killed herself. It turned out they had another model in mind: Francesca Woodman, who (unlike Arbus and Chloe) didn’t come from a rich family — her parents were artists and so was her brother — but, like Chloe in the film, shot almost clinical photos of nude women, deliberately blurred some of her images, attempted suicide in 1980 and finally succeeded in killing herself in 1981 the same way Chloe does in the film: by jumping out of the window of her loft — and unlike Arbus, who died in middle age, Woodman was only 22, the same age as Chloe, when she committed suicide. (One major difference between Woodman and Chloe: the film attributes Chloe’s depression largely to the loss of her mother, but both Woodman’s parents are still alive and are the executors of her estate — and have been criticized for keeping a lot of Francesca’s work under wraps instead of releasing it.) Both Chapman and Evigan said they studied Woodman’s life as a way of making Chloe a more realistic character, and despite the differences the use of a real-life model for the character makes her deeper and richer, to the film’s benefit. I also couldn’t help but draw a parallel between ToY and the recent film Room, which Charles and I had also just seen and found incredibly deep and moving (and, by coincidence, they’re not only both stories about female survival under incredible odds, both star actresses who go by the name “Brie”!); the stories aren’t all that similar but the intensity and compassion with which they are told are, and so is their common theme of how women are exploited sexually by men and the desperation, survival skills and self-hatred they develop to deal with the way they’re used.