Grief Battle: Amber Tamblyn scores raw performances in searing "Paint It Black"

Paint It Black (2017)
96 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Actress Amber Tamblyn commands a singular vision in “Paint It Black,” her potent, trenchantly bold directorial debut, adapted from Janet Fitch’s 2006 novel by Tamblyn and co-writer Ed Dougherty. It’s about the repercussions of suicide, as the fallen leaves behind members of the living to grieve in their own ways, even if those ways lead to obsession and blind trust. With Tamblyn incredibly self-assured behind the camera, she showcases a sit-up-and-take-notice technique and an innate talent for being a veritable actor’s director, judging by the riveting but very differently styled performances by Alia Shawkat and Janet McTeer.

Echo Park punk-rock artist and nude model Josie Tyrell (Alia Shawkat) hasn’t seen her live-in poet boyfriend, Michael (Rhys Wakefield), in about a week. After a night of partying, she gets a call early the next morning from the police, who found her phone number registered at a hotel with the dead body of a white male identified as Michael — he has killed himself. In a state of shock, Josie numbs her pain by going back out to a punk club again, but when she gets home, she gets another call. It’s from Michael’s mother, Meredith (Janet McTeer), a former concert pianist, who guilts Josie into thinking Michael wouldn’t have committed suicide if he had ever met her; she wants Josie to suffer the way she’s suffering. Then at Michael’s funeral, just as she goes up to a set a white rose on his casket, Josie is angrily confronted by Meredith with a slap to the face, clawing her stockings and dragging Josie closer to her on the carpet. From there, the grieving Josie and Meredith share a mutual self-destruction in wake of the death of a young man they both loved. They hate each other, but they might also need each other.

Though one is poor and one is rich, and one is young and one is older, Josie and Meredith are both deeply flawed, damaged women. Together, they’re simultaneously poisoning and curing each other. Stretching beyond her supporting roles that of the acerbic best friend, which she still always handles with likable, quirky aplomb, Alia Shawkat is excellent, layering her accessible presence with raw, intense emotion. Her Josie is the point of interest, as the film begins and ends with her, and the viewer wants to see her start anew. Janet McTeer, then, as the boozy, manipulative, mad-as-hell Meredith, is venom incarnate. She isn’t a stock Mommie Dearest caricature, though. Even as her actions are ugly and ferocious, Meredith is not in a good place and doesn’t seem to have been in a good place in quite a while, having experienced death at a young age herself, divorced from her husband (Alfred Molina), her musical career coming to a halt, and living in her mansion with a maid who would rather be anywhere else. McTeer could have played the entire film in a high-camp pitch, but she is as vulnerable and broken as she is fierce and unhinged.

“Paint It Black” often drifts into a color-saturated, David Lynchian fever dream and a two-can-play-at-this-game thriller as Josie and Meredith begin outdoing the other in terms of cruel actions, like stealing back Michael’s belongings that bring him closer to them. The funeral scene in which the viewer actually meets Meredith plays like a startling, darkly funny waking nightmare amidst such a mournful setting. It’s the stuff of tit-for-tat catfight melodrama, setting the tone for something more lurid and theatrical, and while these two women do let their claws out, writer-director Amber Tamblyn later grounds Janet Fitch's story as Josie begins to heal herself. With the subject matter of suicide at its core, “Paint It Black” doesn’t really search for answers to Michael’s suicide, and it’s just as well. With a feminist sensibility, despite both women brought together by a young man, Amber Tamblyn understands that grief has no easy answers. If Tamblyn impresses in her first time out with this searing female story, one can’t wait to see what the future brings.