Jason Banker’s Felt is, at its core, the story of a victim of crime who decides to don a costume, take on an alter ego, and fight evil. That bare logline makes it sounds like a superhero movie, which technically it is, and when its protagonist notes, in an opening voice-over, “I’m never safe; I can’t tell what’s real anymore,” it’s a blunt statement of the most potent themes of the crime-fighter narrative, in which the world is a terrible place, and you can delude yourself into thinking you can fix it.
But Felt isn’t a megabudget studio action movie — it’s an indie drama about the journey of an assault survivor. Yet it also, in its own fascinating and sideways manner, acknowledges and addresses the oft-ignored darkness at the center of these mass entertainments, and reframes their emotional and political implications. It’s an excellent film, thoughtful and powerful and frequently unnerving.
When we meet Amy (Amy Everson) she’s in the depths of a post-traumatic depression: she spends her time alone, in tears, and in pain, announcing, “My life is a fucking nightmare.” The details of her trauma aren’t reenacted (thankfully) or even explicitly explained, but it’s not hard to gather some rough ideas, from the way she reacts to men at a party, and to an Internet date who insists roofies are an urban legend.
But Amy is an artist, and she finds refuge in creating. One day, she tries on a “costume”: on her head she wears a burlap mask, on her body a skintight tank top and shorts, the latter appended by a prosthetic penis. “This is my superhero costume,” she tells a distressed friend. “We’re gonna rid the world of evil.” In an earlier scene, the same friend humored Amy’s suggestion that they “just go on a killing spree, might be good”; now, she seems less patient.
However, Amy’s slowly returning confidence opens new doors. She takes over what appears to be a scuzzy “artistic” nude shoot, befriending another model, who offers, “You wanna hang out sometime? Fuck some people’s lives up?” While out, they meet Kenny (Kentucker Audley), who is fascinated by Amy, and they hit the customary indie romance beats, including the long first date that creeps into the morning and the picturesque first kiss (overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, even). He promises her “a life that is very comforting and safe.” But that punctures pretty quickly.
On the way there, however, is an extraordinary dialogue scene with one of the most trenchant and honest articulations of male privilege I’ve ever seen in a film. Amy shows Kenny her artwork, which, as he notes, is awfully penis-centric — including a voodoo dick doll, which he looks away from nervously. They talk about her work, and her life (pretty much one and the same), and she explains, “Just the struggle of being female is that you’re constantly objectified and discredited for anything you do because you’re a female. Everything is qualified by the fact that you don’t have a dick… A lot of guys don’t understand that just because you don’t have a gun pointed at your head, that there are other forms of violence.”
It sounds like a Big Speech, and it could’ve been written or played like one, but it’s not — Everson just does the scene rather than “acting” it, and it may well not’ve been written at all, as there’s no screenplay credit, but merely a “Story by” for Everson and director/cinematographer Banker. And the dialogue feels improvised, in the best way, with the overlapping, offhand quality of overheard conversation, well matched to the picture’s intimate style and general lack of showiness.
But if Felt is a “small” movie, in terms of budget and scope (and, it seems, release), it’s a David-and-Goliath situation, playing like a response to the phenomenon of the superhero movie — testosterone driven, frequently exclusionary, and increasingly focused on inconsequential or otherworldly evil. Amy, on the other hand, dons her costume to take on an evil that is frighteningly familiar, and at the conclusion of the picture’s very disturbing climax, the images of her donning that mask and taking a mock-heroic pose aren’t easily shaken.