On the surface, Blame is a juicy high school drama, where the arrival of a new teacher, Jeremy (Chris Messina), and the return of a stigmatized student, Abigail (Quinn Shephard), converge with a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, resulting in rumors and jealousies that parallel the events in Salem, Massachusetts depicted in the play. But Blame dives much deeper than this, exposing the difficulties of navigating high school during the age of social media, when reputations can be destroyed with a single text. Blame is riveting, fraught with tension and the perfect cocktail of insecurity and uncertain sexuality that made me really glad my high school are long behind me.
Abigail returns to school after an unnamed incident, which, according to the gossip of other students but never truly confirmed by Abigail herself, resulted in time spent in a psych ward. Abigail is quiet and defensive, but she is mostly undeterred by her classmates insults (they call her Sybil, referring to the 1976 Sally Field film about a woman who develops multiple personalities). Abigail has a predilection for acting, delivering a monologue from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie for her drama class completely in character and immersing herself in plays as a means to escape the bullying of her classmates.
At the same time, we’re introduced to Melissa (Nadia Alexander), a wild child and popular student who struts the hallways in short skirts, kohl-rimmed eyes and fire red curls. Melissa butts heads with her step-father, secretly hooks up with her best friend’s crush and takes special delight in targeting Abigail. When their pregnant drama teacher goes into labor, Jeremy takes over the class and introduces a new play, The Crucible, and chooses Abigail over Melissa for the lead role. This sparks an intense jealousy and destructive vengeance in Melissa, but the play also fosters a taboo attraction between Abigail and Jeremy, who begin working closely together on the play both inside and outside of the classroom.
While it’s easy to see the parallels between Blame and The Crucible, the film explores much more than this dynamic. The struggle for acceptances, Melissa’s drive to drink and party away problems at home feel reminiscent of Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen. The film’s subplots subtly pick up on the theme of rumor and suspicion, as Melissa manipulates her best friend, Sophie (Sarah Mezzanotte), as well as her guy friends (Owen Campbell, Luke Slattery) in her quest to expose Abigail, which eventually culminates in a shocking and irrevocable finale.
Perhaps what is most impressive about Blame is that the film marks the directorial debut of 22-year-old lead Quinn Shephard, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. Shephard initially wrote the film’s first draft when she was just fifteen, after her own experience playing Abigail Williams in a production of The Crucible. Without a doubt, Blame was one of the highlights of the Tribeca Film Festival for me this year, one that truly blew me away, not only due to Shephard’s age but due to her immense talent.
Blame not only exposes the fraught tension of everyday high school drama but it also gives an honest depiction of what it feels like to be a complicated and confused teenage girl from more than one perspective. It’s a shining testament to the need for more films written from the female perspective. With Blame, Shephard has made her mark as a female filmmaker to keep an eye on in years to come.