Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell deals with the party after it’s over as he chronicles the tail end of punk rock bottom.
Elizabeth Moss is Becky Something, the lead singer of 90s all-girl band Something-She, once covering the coolest magazines they are now being lapped on the basement club circuit by the prettier, younger girls they once inspired.
Becky has all the destructiveness of Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine in A Star is Born with none of the apologies. She is obnoxious, rarely on time and her addictions have led her bandmates Ali (Glow’s Gayle Rankin) and Mari (model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn) to give up on her. Becky’s estranged husband and father to her neglected daughter (Dan Stevens) is trying a little harder to get her on the right path. The film gives audiences little reasoning as to why their long-suffering manager Howard (Eric Stoltz) has stuck around, his small record label once made by Something-She now just an embarrassment.
Most of the film’s first act takes place in the maze of venue green rooms and corridors. People swarm in and out, constantly disappointed by Becky as she treats them like dirt. Her drug-infused Messiah complex makes her believe she is the only reason anyone in the room has found success. There are slightly too many characters in this first extended scene, aside from managers, bandmates and ex-husbands there are assistants and a shaman. It’s claustrophobic, dialogue getting lost as characters shout over each other and come in and out of rooms. It’s a good metaphor for the chaos of addiction, too much noise with not enough time to breathe. Perry’s regular cinematographer Sean Price Williams captures the transformation from the private person to the public performer, all assisted by Moss’ expressive energy. At times this feels more like an uncomfortable fly on the wall documentary and less like a fictional film.
Becky opportunistically trades up her exasperated bandmates for a trio of fresh, naïve young girls who idolize this (Cara Delevingne, Dylan Gelula and Ashley Benson). There is no grey line in Moss’ performance, she is an abuser who manipulates those around her without thinking about it. She’s a bad mother, a terrible bandmember and generally a horrible person to spend time with. It’s refreshing to see a woman portrayed as a terrible person through and through, no excuses or grey areas to be interpreted.
In the second to last scene we see Becky in her home, on the way to recovery, playing piano and rebuilding a relationship with her daughter. Time has passed but we’re never sure how long has passed, it feels like months, but her daughter is significantly older than in the previous scene. The emotional impact doesn’t quite hit due to the lack of narrative flow and context. This scene is too long, drawn-out and feels like it should be cut down by minutes. Perry doesn’t quite know how to deal with these large than life characters when they’re offstage and out of character.
Moss is a decent singer and brings her own menacing yet sad energy to the performances, she sadly lacks the it-factor that a character like Becky would need to have in real life. Much like Vox Lux, the onstage scenes feel fictional, unlike the backstage vignettes you don’t believe Something-She are remarkable enough to have such a vile lead singer but such a big career.
We are dropped into Becky’s world with very little context. Whilst by the end of Her Smell you might understand our anti-hero a little better, you won’t understand why those around her stuck around so long. People drift in and out of Becky’s world, once friends everyone is now a foe to Becky. There is more to be said about her bandmates and the mysteriously glamorous Zelda (Amber Heard), a punk-rocker turned popstar Zelda was once a friend, but her fame outgrew her punky roots. Becky is so complexly written as a character that those around feel especially underwritten. The cast do their best with these roles, but they are mostly style over substance.
The film is essentially five extended detailing the fall and rise of Moss’ character. They’re raw, lack edits and lack much character development. These drawn-out scenes are uncomfortable to watch with a semi-improvised chaos that soon wears thin. Scenes last far longer than they should and there is a lack of an editing eye on this film. It’s all pretty dark with the only respite coming in the form of short flashbacks from the start of the band’s career. Don’t expect a Hollywood redemption story, Ross Perry understands that women like Becky are far more complicated than that.
Her Smell would be a significantly weaker film without Moss in the leading role. This film is any other lead’s hands would have gone very wrong. Every tic and mannerism is turned up to 11, she is entirely believable as this falling apart former-star. When you take away the raw aesthetics and fantastic performances Her Smell is a rather ordinary tale. Becky’s journey and growth don’t break the cinematic boundaries, as much as it wants to. Many scenes ramble on, but Her Smell never pretended to have a plot. Don’t expect to leave Her Smell with answers. This isn’t a classic redemption story with a Hollywood ending.
Signature Entertainment presents Her Smell on Digital HD 9th September