m.f.a. review Francesca Eastwood Leah McKendrickYear: 2017
Director(s): Natalia Leite
Writer(s): Leah McKendrick
Region of Origin: US

Rating: n/a
Color, 95 mins

Synopsis: After their attackers go free, an art student vows to avenge herself and fellow students who’ve been raped. (Source)

M.F.A. burns with purpose, especially at a time when it’s vital to hear and understand women’s voices. Wholly important yet somewhat safe, it’s still a passionate film that dissects sexual violence and a culture that propagates its existence. Director Natalia Leite and Leah McKendrick give the story a refreshing voice, coming at its subject matter with enough complexity to break boundaries and ring with urgency. Finally, this is a woman’s story told from a woman’s perspective, something that may seem obvious, but a rarity in today’s climate. Star Francesca Eastwood anchors the film with conviction, embodying heavy themes with equal doses of empathy, empowerment and horror. M.F.A.’s fiction is all too real, continuing a conversation that is needed now more than ever.

Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) is an unassuming art student, talented, but struggling with inspiration. At the insistence of her roommate, she attends a party to pursue a cute classmate named Luke (Peter Vack). After the two hit it off, he invites her up to his room but he ends up forcing himself on Noelle, ignoring her clear rejection and ending the night with a vile act of nonchalant, rape. Devastated, Noelle is unsure of what to do, especially after her roommate insists that she stay silent about the assault in fear of being ostracized. The suggestion doesn’t sit right with Noelle, and after a freak accident leads to Luke’s death, she finds herself at a crossroads. Vilified by the death of her attacker, Noelle uses the momentum to take matters into her own hands, hunting down known campus predators to insure that what happened to her never happens again. Wrong or right, however, her actions have consequences, leading to a cycle of tragedy that challenges Noelle’s brand of justice.

The strong point of Leite’s film is how it charts the consequences and perception of sexual violence, starting from Noelle’s intimate point of view, to those around her. This rich through line allows Leite to present themes through the lens of a revenge thriller, mixing in procedural elements to keep things constantly moving. Noelle’s tragic, psychological vacuum consistently draws us in, but Leite renders a fine line between victim and predator. As bodies pile up, Noelle’s retribution is made even muddier when her victims are mourned, their transgressive acts seemingly forgotten in a society that favors male absolution while stifling the voices of women who are constantly second guessed. All of this tension would be shocking in a horror film, but as it mirrors reality, it’s all the more haunting and never a one-sided exploration. Leite and McKendrick aren’t afraid to point their fingers at both men and women, calling out a faulty support system in which women slut shame while men think they can get away with anything. Really, this is all just at the story’s surface, and to Leite’s credit, the film is a starting point that leaves us with plenty to talk about.

m.f.a. review francesca eastwood stillFrancesca Eastwood is the film’s secret weapon, giving a fierce, multi-faceted performance. Eastwood’s journey can’t be put into words, but she makes us feel every ounce of torment and righteous anger. Just like the film’s themes, there’s a fine line to be drawn, and she makes Noelle’s actions feel justified even if we’re a bit unsettled by them. Needless to say, the film wouldn’t feel as human without her, and its because of her that the entire thing works. Writer Leah McKendrick pulls double duty as Noelle’s confidante, Skye, adding complexity to her already textured story.

Though there’s no way M.F.A. could answer all of the questions it poses, it doesn’t need to. Despite being a bit on the nose, it completely accomplishes what it sets out to do, urging the viewer that its time to face facts no matter how uncomfortable they may be. Ultimately, another unexpected turn closes Noelle’s bleak arc, turning inward to remind us that taking responsibility for our actions, whether right or wrong, is the first step towards putting things right, individually, and as a society.

SG