Starring: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Marlon Young and Peter Vack
Directed By: Natalia Leite
A couple weeks ago, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced plans to roll back title IX protections for victims of sexual assault established under the Obama administration. Instead of helping victims of rape to navigate the legal process she hopes to protect the innocent victims of false accusation. Rape statistics vary greatly from source to source but I've yet to come across any study that postulates the number of false accusations out numbers actual assaults. And yet here we are. In a time where an equivalency is being drawn between the two. M.F.A. is the story of Noelle (Eastwood) an art student who is raped and decides to take decisive action when she sees a system that turns a blind eye.
Early in the film Professor Rudd (Young) tells Noelle to "make something ugly." He encourages her to fail. He asks her to push herself outside of the comfortable places where she can rely on muscle memory. The professor is laying out the directors story. He lets us know we are about to watch an ugly film that has moments of grace and levity that will offend some and inspire others. Leite understands that she is working with deeply sensitive material. She embraces her story, fully aware that if she mishandles it... the film doesn't stand a chance.
When Noelle decides to report the crime, the school faculty offer no support and assume that she is lying. Questions like "how much did you have to drink", "did you say, no", "did anyone see you" presume her culpability. The film is showing, when you start from a place where the victim is made to feel more shame, it encourages silence. During the questioning the sound drops out and we are given insight to Noelles helplessness. Its a scene that rings incredibly true and personal in ways that only a victim of assault could fully realize.
The performance by Eastwood is critical to the films success. She has a complicated role that could easily be played with an over the top exuberance, thankfully she avoids the obvious take on the material. Instead of chewing up scenery she brings a sense of pathos that feels utterly real and lies beneath the surface of every scene. While the film is ultimately about empowerment, Eastwood explores the cost of that unshackling in a grounded and deeply human performance.
Rape revenge films have been a staple of the independent horror world for the better part of 40 years. Unfortunately, most of these films have little more to say than rape is bad. The problem with most films like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE HILLS HAVE EYES and DELIVERANCE is in the antagonists. They present a world where the only people who are capable of such heinous acts are redneck monsters. M.F.A. is too honest for all that nonsense. It shows sensitive art school students, frat boys, teachers, and people you would probably feel comfortable leaving your kids with as the assailants.
M.F.A. is an important film that remembers to entertain the audience. This is a film that will spark conversations and inspire debate. Yes, this is a film that people need to see but it never feels like homework. Leite has managed to make an incredibly personal genre film that is sensitive to its subject without coddling it. She wants to slap us around and wake us up. About halfway through the film a character in a rape survivors support group says "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" and Noelle replies "if the whole world is blind, does it matter?" We as an audience are left to answer this question for ourselves and decide if the film is cynical or hopeful.