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perpetrator movie.png

Tribeca Review: 'Clueless' Goes To Hell In 'Perpetrator'

By Jason Adams | Film | June 12, 2023 |

By Jason Adams | Film | June 12, 2023 |


perpetrator movie.png

“Alicia Silverstone heads back to high school!” would be one hell of a selling point for a movie in a normal world. But we don’t live in a normal world and director Jennifer Reeder definitely doesn’t set her movies in one, thank goodness. And so instead of Clueless 2 what we have here with Perpetrator, Reeder’s brand new strangeness, is better described as “Clueless in Hell”—a high school horror flick steeped in Reeder’s signature slo-mo surrealism, Perpetrator submerges all of the genre’s poppy tropes in a viscous red syrup puddling at our feet. For fans of the director it’s further proof she’s onto something. For those wandering in unschooled, hold onto your guts.

Jonny (Kiah McKirnan from Mare of Easttown)—and you can bet your bottom dollar that masculine name was chosen to fit right in among the gender-free tradition of Final Girl names—is a troubled teen. That should perhaps be capitalized—a Troubled Teen, in the way of TV after-school specials. She steals, she stomps around. Her dad (Tim Hopper), no picture of high health, can’t keep up with her, and so he ships her off to live with her bizarre Aunt Hildie (Silverstone), a grande dame vamp who lives in a creepy mansion that, in the usual way of creepy mansions, doesn’t get much in the way of natural light, wink wink.

At her new school Jonny, never suffering for a lack of coolness or confidence, manages to make a few quick friends, including a cute girl named Elektra (Ireon Roach) who she bonds with inside that great bastion of bad girl bonding, aka the bathroom stalls—that eternal oasis where one goes to sniffle or smoke or retch or all of the above. And Jonny also makes some friends the way friends are built via a more recent historical development—hiding under a desk during a school shooter drill. One which their school principal (Christopher Lowell from Veronica Mars and G.L.O.W.) conducts with a great, some might say tyrannical, enthusiasm. Being sprayed with fake blood will bond you real fast.

The standard joke is that teenage girls are feeling all of the feelings all of the time—all of their emotions on beeping and blinking high red alert, hormones amped up to eleven, they’ll shift from tears to fury in the time it takes to reapply their lip gloss. But in the films of Reeder—meaning specifically her terrific 2019 flick Knives and Skin and here again in Perpetrator— it’s as if we’re seeing this rollercoaster from such a great distance that all of its peaks and valleys become evened out.

Which is to say it’s never the teen girls who seem deranged, not even when they’ve got blood dripping down their lips (as they often, often do). But rather it’s the adults, always the adults, who stand like big blinking red warning signs of what lay ahead. Adulthood seems more fucked up than anything mere high school can muster. You know the gag in Peanuts how all of the grown-ups speak in an unintelligible womp-womp sound? Reeder’s adults are all Lynchian lunatics short one log. And it falls to the teen girls to hold the world together.

In Perpetrator this ability literally manifests itself as a super-power, one which we find out runs sap-like through the limbs of Jonny’s family tree—Aunt Hildie describes it as “a possession in reverse,” but what it comes down to is a kind of uber empathy. In practice, Reeder presents this ability as a kind of emotional vampirism—Jonny and Hildy both suck on the feelings from those around them. Notsomuch emptying them out but tapping into them so deeply that their own physical bodies mold and morph and shift and change. Best symbolizing this, when the school nurse tests Jonny she hears two or maybe three heartbeats thump-thump-thumping at once. And if you’ve heard a better metaphor for the surreal teenage experience I suggest you go make that movie now, because I sure haven’t.

And Jonny’s newfound ability comes in especially handy here since, like with Knives and Skin before it, the world of Perpetrator is one where teen girls are in constant danger. Kidnapping runs rampant, and there’s a serial abductor on the loose, snatching up Jonny’s friends before she can properly bond with them. So as she strikes official eighteen—and Aunt Hildie is kind enough to bake her a blood-soaked birthday cake, natch—Jonny’s powers of extraordinary empathy kick into high gear. And she begins weaponizing them for good.

Ish? Try as hard as I might to make it clear that Perpetrator is playing on its own specific playing field, it’s impossible to describe the plot of it without making it sound like way more of a plot than Perpetrator has. It’s always more of a vibe, one that Reeder keeps fine-tuning from film to film—it’s flirting with camp, funny but not unserious, and everything calls attention to itself in a funhouse Fassbinder by way of Brecht sorta way. It skirts the gaping disconnect between the Grand Guignol of girlhood and some arch postmodern through-the-looking-glass jazz. It’s singular stuff that you may or may not tap into, but if you can, man, you’ll feel your heart beat triple-time.