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SYFY WIRE Tribeca Film Festival

Jennifer Reeder talks her noir-musical Knives And Skin and the secret language of teenage girls

By Kristy Puchko

You've never seen a movie quite like Jennifer Reeder's Knives and Skin. It's a genre-bender, blending moody noir, teen drama, and surreal musical numbers with a generous slathering of style and queer sensibility. The story centers on the residents of a small Midwest town and how they cope when a local girl goes missing. But its broader themes touch on what it means to be a teen girl, from first loves and mean girls to slut-shaming and the secret language of female friendships.

Following the film's North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with Knives and Skin director Jennifer Reeder to dig into this freaky and fantastic movie's most powerful scenes.

Knives and Skin's story begins when bespectacled band geek Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) sneaks out of her room for a secret hook-up. When she doesn't come home, her mother and classmates are thrown into a whirlwind of emotions: fear, anger, grief, and denial. As days roll by, girls from different cliques collide, baring first teeth, then tenderness. With the homecoming dance around the corner, picture-perfect cheerleader Laurel Darlington (Kayla Carter) and goth misfit Charlotte Kurtich (Ireon Roach) clash over a dress fitting. A combative exchange about their sexual experiences turns to the weighted question: "If you aren't a c*nty slut and you're not a bitchy tease, then what are you?"

With her film, Reeder aims to "dispel the myth of the mean girl." She explained, "I like presenting these kinds of mean girls, but then having that meanness either be explained, justified, or unraveled." By digging underneath the surface of girl-on-girl bullying, Reeder hopes to show the insecurities and vulnerabilities that push so-called mean girls into a harmful defense mechanism. In Knives and Skin, both the cheerleader and the misfit display their tough exterior and their softer side. But this scene also touches on the unwinnable binary of gender politics. The girls are given two labels from which to pick: c*nty slut or bitchy tease. Both are a one-two punch of gendered insults.

"Those are words that people use towards women that narrow their existence down to their bodies, or to their sexual experiences, or lack of sexual experience," Reeder said. "It's real and it's really damaging ... Because there's that sense of you are what you've done [sexually], or you are because you are sexual, you know? I think that girls learn that at an early age, and it's a really damaging thing that can follow you into your adulthood."

This standoff between the two girls ends in an unexpected moment of understanding with the answer: "I'm nothing. I'm neither." Reeder explained. "So, all that vitriol deflates when you realize that both of them actually feel invisible, you know?" In that moment, Laurel and Charlotte realize they are not enemies. Moreover, they see that they need not concede to the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't rules of teen sex, which are established by a patriarchy that "treats women like sh*t." (To snatch a phrase from another scene in the film.)

To give greater voice to her teen heroines, Reeder worked musical numbers into Knives and Skin. Some are diegetic, occurring within the girls' choir class. Others are far more surreal. But the one that hits hardest is a mix of both.

Following an unsuccessful search party, Carolyn's female classmates go to choir, where they sing a plaintive, a cappella rendition of New Order's "Blue Monday." The song is haunting. Sung by the girls, the lyrics seem a vocal challenge against the world that assaults them: "How does it feel/ To treat me like you do?/ When you've laid your hands upon me/ And told me who you are?"

"The musical scenes are so much about — literally — the harmony in between these female friendships," Reeder said. "And that there is synchronicity and there's beauty and transcendent moments within the chaotic world of an adolescent."

"I'd done this kind of a cappella number before," Reeder said, referring to some of her short films. "Where I'd taken a pop song and rearranged it to be kind of lamentation or a lullaby." In Knives and Skin, the musical numbers are all mournful but melodic rearrangements of '80s classics like "Our Lips Are Sealed" or "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." "They are all from a certain era, which is basically my kind of injection of autobiography. I was a teenager in the '80s," Reeder admitted with a shrug.

But as the girls sing "Blue Monday," something unexpected happens. One by one, they begin to whisper in pairs. The song goes on. We can't hear their hushed exchanges. But their secrets will be spilled by subtitles in a bright pink font. Some will share about family troubles. Others worry about what might happen if they went missing. And cheerleader Laurel confesses, "I wrote a new cheer … it's called 'I'm More Worried Than I Let On.'"

Asked about how this scene came about, Reeder shared, "In some of my shorts I've used non-verbal dialogue as a way to reveal this kind of secret language of these teenage girls. Sometimes it's been in texting. Sometimes it's been in other whispering moments. Sometimes it's been in a girl trying to telepathically communicate with someone else, and so that's subtitled. Because I like that sense that, yeah, you can reveal to the audience these kinds of these secrets."

But it's not just the subtitles themselves that make this scene stand out. It's that they are pink. White is standard. The pink is evocative of gel pens, the perfect tool for scribbling a note to your BFF during class. Reeder nodded at this connection. "I wanted to treat [the subtitles] as a visual narrative element," Reeder said of the color choice. "I wanted to sort of bathe the whole film in this kind of magenta and violet. So it felt like it was vibrating with a sort of femme sensibility."

With Knives and Skin, Reeder sought to give a voice and dimension to teen girls. And she does so with complicated female characters, challenging dialogue, and visually inventive explorations of their feelings and thoughts. When we spoke, Reeder stated, "I wanted to try and make a feminist film that had a missing girl at its center."

And she has. And with flying colors.