Mark Elijah Rosenberg is the Founder and Artistic Director of Rooftop Films; look for a few more reviews from him and the rest of the Rooftop crew to trickle in today.
“It takes courage to tell someone you love them,” says Shelly, the lead (Stella Schnabel) in Ry Russo-Young’s second feature film, You Wont Miss Me. It also takes courage to be loved, as the disturbed young Shelly discovers within the push and pull of her downtown dropout artist scene. With a jet-setting mother and a big house in the country, we know Shelly comes from a certain set of privileges; but with a shrink who callously has seen her problems before and with a set of friends who pride themselves in grubby authenticity, Shelly also comes with a certain set of emotional baggage — designer baggage, intentionally scuffed, the zippers busted, the fabric frayed, emotions spilling out in a dysfunctional display.
Much like David Thwelis’ character “Johnny” in Mike Leigh’s Naked, Shelly has plenty of people who want to engage her, support her, work with her, have sex with her — but she alternately, compulsively, attracts and repels them all. At an audition, a director (Rooftop directing alum Aaron Katz) is impressed with her intensity, but when he hints that she may be too hot to handle (“You don’t know what to say when you’re not being mean,” another actress says), Shelly instinctively immediately gets defensive, denying her desire to even appear in the movie, calling him pretentious. In a post-party hotel room, her friend frets over a flirtation, and Shelly rips into her for not being real, for not being herself — the crushing irony, of course, being that in choosing to “be herself,” Shelly is smart, and sexy, and talented and dynamic; but she’s also drunk, and self-deprecating, and depressive. “You’re the type of person,” her friend (Josephine Wheelwright) cruelly says, “who is going to kill herself in five years, so I don’t want to be implicated.” Another relationship ruined.
When a group values being different — but not too different; being difficult — but still accessible; being wild and crazy — but in control; when transgression is the norm, how do you assimilate? This question of how to fit in with the uber-cool trash elite may seem like a narrow concern, but Shelly’s social anxiety and anti-social attitude are universal feelings and fears. You Wont Miss Me is a jangly, disorderly film, careening from scene to scene, style to style: fitting for a tale about the jarring struggle to fit into this rowdy, discordant society. Different media — flaw-revealing HD video, furtive camera phones, hopeful and dreamlike 16mm and Super-8 film — display different aspects of Shelly’s life and psychic space. And the natural but stormy way she flips between contentedness and craziness, between fucking and fighting — these sudden shifts are more natural than most fictional depictions of madness, with their linear, causal progressions: this happened so that happened so so-and-so went nuts. It doesn’t happen like that. There are outbursts and tranquility, setbacks and breakthroughs, good days and bad days. Life moves on, though the heart and mind may stumble and struggle to catch up.
As explained in the SXSW Q&A, Russo-Young and Schnabel had a somewhat unique collaborative process for crafting the film: they co-wrote a biography of “Shelly,” then Russo-Young interviewed Schnabel in character as Shelly, then wrote a loose screenplay based on the fictional experiences. As such, Shelly is not merely an unlovable anti-hero, angry for the sake of voicing the director and actor’s angst; she’s deeply embodied by her creators, who feel her pain and struggle to understand and express it. But they don’t attempt to rise above it with a happy ending or easy explanations. As a victim of her own choices, Shelly is a living critique of her milieu. Unable to accept the help and love offered her, lacking the courage to love or be loved, she is a bold, in-your-face, coward — a rare and uncommon character to see on screen (yet all too common in life), and herein a revelation