Her Smell (2019)
Directed by Alex Ross Perry
As I wrote my notes for this movie, I began early on by calling Elizabeth Moss’s character Becky, an unhinged, fading punk rock star, “instantly unlikeable.” Then there was “childish,” “hateable,” “the movie would’ve been better without her,” and then “when she says ‘cross my heart and hope to die,’ you hope too.” But that was the first hour. For the last 75 minutes of the movie, things changed. I ended by writing that I was “seriously torn,” and I still am. I don’t think I’m supposed to dislike Becky as much as I did for the first third of the movie, and I think she could’ve been written and played better, but the rest of the movie’s pieces work so well I have to forgive them for that.
Becky Something (Moss) is just a stage name, a persona, but somewhere along the way it became the only version of herself that Rebecca identified with. Her band, Something She (Moss, Gayle Rankin, and Agyness Deyn), is on the downside of their career after cancelling their planned upcoming tour and struggling to produce enough good music for a new album. Everyone seems okay with it except Becky, who lashes out against everyone in her life—her bandmates, her ex-husband (Dan Stevens), and the new girl group everyone sees as receiving Something She’s baton.
“Her Smell” is ultimately about Becky, but initially it’s as much (if not more) about how Becky’s antics affect the people in her life. This is the stuff that I enjoyed greatly. At one point, Becky is late to a concert, and the way this totally expected failure on Becky’s part strikes a blow to the already-exhausted band, manager, and ex-husband (who is also the father of Becky’s young daughter) is some of the film’s best material. When Becky is in the picture, though, it’s all chaos. Becky is immature (speaking in a baby voice to her bandmates and manager), delusional (carrying out ritualistic seances), and very, very rude. And that’s necessary for the movie and her character’s arc. I get it. But unlikable rock star is a character that has been done many times before, and it never seemed so extreme and unnecessary as it does here. The movie almost could have been done without Elizabeth Moss, if her frequent lateness could just extend so long that we hear everyone talking about her but only see the effects it has on them, without the distraction of having to watch Becky’s childish outbursts. But, again, thankfully, Becky begins to get her life back on track and brings the movie back on track with her.
The movie works well despite the frustratingly awful scenes of Becky throwing long, extended temper tantrums. The arc of Becky getting her shit together is the whole point of the movie. It just sucks that writer-director Alex Ross Perry felt the need to make Becky a raging lunatic when we meet her. On the other hand, I loved the “Steve Jobs”-inspired structure of Perry’s script. His long scenes are not easy for anyone to pull off convincingly, but Perry filled them with enough relevant dialogue to hold an audience’s interest. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams (“Good Time”) has a great eye for capturing the kinetic chaos. His camera gets right in the faces of the actors, making every little movement seem like you’re in the middle of a mosh pit. Only when Becky starts to recover does the camera pull back. It complements the tone of the movie at each step.
I may never watch “Her Smell” again because of my contempt for Becky’s early scenes, but I do respect its commitment to telling a story of personal and professional redemption with a cast who is entirely committed to their parts.