Forseeable Drama with a Shockingly Dark Climax.
The way the United States by-and-large handles the problem of rape and assault is disgusting. Just recently, the stomach-turning rape on Stanford University's campus committed by student Brock Turner bought him only a six month prison sentence; Turner served 90 days of it before being released. I know several women at my private college who have been assaulted or raped and offered little help by administration. It's a seriously disheartening detail to note in the self-proclaimed "greatest country in the world."
To my knowledge, however, the women I know in my life haven't taken drastic, vindictive action quite like Noelle in Natalie Leite's new film M.F.A.. Within the first few minutes of the film, college art student Noelle is violently raped by a fellow student at her university who invited her to a house party. She leaves the house a different woman, violated and ostensibly alone. A trip to a counselor offers little else but accusations designed as questions - "were you drinking?," "did you say 'no?'" She returns to the student's house one day to call him out on his indefensible actions and accidentally pushes him off of his balcony, effectively killing him.
The outcome wasn't intended, but nonetheless satisfying, and Noelle doesn't cry crocodile-tears after the fact. Noelle then learns that a woman not too dissimilar from her was viciously gang-raped at a fraternity by men who were let off with barely a slap on the wrist, prompting her to extend her revenge by targeting them. As a result, the art and portraits she creates that were written off as shallow and bland works are now hailed by her professor and all her classmates that double as her critics.
Noelle is played by Francesca Eastwood, Clint's daughter, giving her a stable, well-grounded showcase on which to show what she's truly about as an actress. After numerous roles as the side-character or a small, background cameo, Eastwood steps up to the plate and delivers a capable lead performance that suggests career longevity. She's wide-eyed and adaptable, playing a character not easy to describe and one that not every audience member is going to like. The best kind of characters are the controversial, difficult ones; ones you root for but aren't entirely sure they're worthy of your support, and not only does Eastwood recognize this, but she plays to it.
Eastwood also shares a good bond with co-star Leah McKendrick, who plays Skye, her roommate who experiences her own trauma later in the film as well. A tender moment between the two youthful actresses comes when Skye asks Noelle to sleep with her after a night she'll never forget; a night that changed her similar to the way it changed Noelle. It's a poignant moment of connection, one that had to unfortunately occur due to ugly circumstances.
With that in mind, M.F.A. makes no quibbles in showing more than one rape, and it's portrayed with the raw realism you'd want out of a film bold enough to hit you with a "death to rapists" theme. The scenes are hard to watch; I cannot imagine viewing them as a rape survivor, and to the respective crowd, I'd proceed with caution. I recently read a lengthy thinkpiece by the wonderful writer April Wolfe about "rape choreography," a field that has crewmember(s) acting like stuntmen, putting the pieces together and the specific body movements/positions of actors into place in order to create a realistic rape-scene. One choreographer, Deven MacNair, who has made a living doing such work for years, appreciates the work she gets, but was comfortable saying in an interview, "if I do less [rape scenes] next year, that's OK by me." Whomever did the respective choreography in M.F.A. deserves the praise they will almost certainly not receive.
M.F.A. (which stands for "Master of Fine Arts") bears a shockingly dark climax that effectively tosses aside a lot of the preceding predictability. The first half of the film is mostly foreseeable drama, but the film eventually amasses into something that's very harrowing that provides perspective on another side. Clearly, though, the film is made to shed light on a particular issue the same way the great documentary The Hunting Ground did, only in a fictitious, narrative form. Occasionally, the characters present feel like vessels, but we're at a time where people still need to be told (and shown) how rapist athletes are protected by universities thanks to their impeccable ability to generate revenue at the expense of victims tossed aside and branded as harlots. It's an ugly truth we're going to have to confront, and even with its issues, M.F.A.'s existence is an audacious one I'm not sure many are ready to stomach.
Steve's Grade: B