Having just produced April O'Donnell's short film Edmund Evans is a Rapist myself, a film also dealing with a campus rape, I will confess that I still found myself a bit resistant to sitting down to watch Natalia Leite's critically acclaimed M.F.A., which had its world premiere at SXSW and has just arrived in theaters for a limited theatrical release and on digital through the usual digital channels by Dark Sky Films.
The film stars Francesca Eastwood as Noelle, a shy and inhibited fine arts student whose skills are obvious but whose art is often described as timid and lacking. When she is invited by one of her class's shining stars, Luke (Peter Vack), to a big party, the introverted Noelle seemingly basks in the recognition of her humanity.
Innocent flirtation rapidly escalates into rape, a chaotic segue that is so effective that anyone who has experienced date rape may very well find themselves triggered by the emotionally and physically graphic scene that practically feels like Noelle screaming out 'Dear god, let me survive this."
Noelle does survive it, her post-rape battered body and clothing escorted away from the scene as if nothing had happened. One can see the uncomfortable stares from those watching her leave, yet nary a soul bothers to question her condition.
Back in the safety of her own room, her roommate, Skye (Leah McKendrick), questions her obviously traumatized state and offers up the practically copyrighted "I believe you" while proceeding to serve up bad advice. Noelle's visit to a campus administrator (Mary Price Moore) is even less satisfying, her feeble attempts at interviewing Noelle expressing more doubt than support. Taking matters into her own hands, Noelle attempts to confront Luke, a confrontation that inadvertently ends in Luke's death.
Noelle didn't "technically" cause it, but she sure as hell ain't sorry about it.
It's not long after Luke's death that M.F.A. shifts from a rather intimate story of one woman's attempts to seek justice on a campus that turns a blind eye to injustice to a more globally resonant film that weaves together elements of your usual rape/revenge film with an equally effective storyline about one woman's extraordinary measures in regaining control of her life and healing - no matter the cost.
After Luke's semi-accidental death, Noelle becomes aware of just how widespread sexual assault is on her campus and she becomes a one woman killing machine in exacting justice. While that may sound like it has hints of I Spit On Your Grave, M.F.A. is a vastly different film, a more intelligent and emotionally honest film and one that, at least for the most part, avoids exploiting its subject.
M.F.A. is at its best when Eastwood is front and center. Eastwood's work here is absolutely the stuff of break-outs and one can only hope that enough people see the film that she'll start getting more offers. While there were times she was flexing outside her range, Eastwood's level of intimacy and vulnerability is absolutely devastating here and she's made you like Noelle so much by the time she's raped that the rape's impact ripples in impact. The film is less successful in some of the ancillary scenes, police investigation scenes, in particular, coming off as stagey and formulaic with the normally reliable Clifton Collins Jr. not being given nearly enough to do here.
Leah McKendrick, who also wrote the screenplay in addition to portraying Skye, gives a devastating performance that builds in intensity and serves up one of the film's most impactful scenes.
While M.F.A. ends pretty much in the way it needs to end, it's a soft ending that mutes the impact that everything else that comes before it. While the words resonate, the pacing of the scene feels off and the film's overwhelming intensity ends with a bit of a whimper.
Quibbles with the ending aside, M.F.A. is the kind of film that lingers in your psyche' and doesn't really let you go. If you're a rape survivor, I highly recommend watching the film with a partner if you're going to watch it. Be prepared that the rape scenes don't hold back, devastating in their choreography and astounding with Aaron Kovalchik's precise, fluid lensing. Sonya Belousova also deserves kudos for original music that builds and releases with the film's emotional peaks and valleys.
For more information on M.F.A., visit the film's website linked to in the credits or check out your usual digital outlets to watch the film for yourself.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic