By Bryce Cross

Citizen Jane Narrative Films

“Blame” was screened at the 2017 Citizen Jane Film Festival.

Spoilers follow for “Blame.”

In “Blame,” a high school drama, “Hot for Teacher” is unnervingly taken to the extreme.

The writing, starring and directorial debut of 22-year-old Quinn Shephard manages to capture an authenticity that comes with being a teenager. The awkwardness, jealousy and rush of confusing emotions are all there as Shephard adapts a kind of twisted, contemporary take on “The Crucible.” However, while commendable, the film does stumble just as much as it succeeds.

Shephard appears in the film as Abigail, a quiet, reclusive and eccentric teenage girl recently discharged from a mental institution. Attempting to readjust to high school life, she faces challenges one might expect for a student with psychiatric history – bullies. Amongst the ones making her life miserable is Melissa (Nadia Alexander), a brattish, punk-themed and self-absorbed cheerleader who convinces the easily pressured Sophie (Sarah Mezzanotte) into ruining Abigail’s life. Also present is the down-to-earth Ellie (Tessa Albertson), who is unwilling to follow Melissa blindly.

As Abigail’s drama teacher goes on maternity leave, substitute Jeremy (Chris Messina) enters the scene. He assigns parts of “The Crucible,” and upon realizing the acting talent of Abigail, he casts her as the lead of the play. When she can find no other scene partner, he steps in to be the John Proctor to her Abigail Williams. From here, the book’s tale of forbidden desire between a teenage girl and an adult man plays out as Abigail begins to slowly, but surely lust after her teacher.

“Blame” shows Abigail gradually, but obsessively transform into her character. She wears skimpier outfits and shoots seductive stares during class and rehearsals, all in an effort to seduce the only person who has shown her kindness. Meanwhile, Shephard shifts most of the film’s focus toward Melissa and her struggle for power.

Seething and feeling self-entitled, the cheerleader is angry that she was skipped over for the play’s lead in favor of Abigail. Melissa is bothered even more by the idea of Abigail being with the director. The film becomes a tale of one mean girl’s devotion to gaining power by exposing a possible student-teacher affair.

I stated before that Shephard should be commended and I mean it. For her age and film debut, the film works on a technical level. Its camera work, editing, sound direction, and acting are great. The standout is Messina (of “Mindy Project” fame) as he has a likeability to him which doesn’t make the audience hate Jeremy for his feelings. Shepard herself brings an uncomfortable air to her character as you see how fragile the state of her mental health gets the further she dives into her obsession for Jeremy.

Unfortunately, “Blame” suffers from an overreliance on its incredibly open-ended writing and is prone to clichés as it follows Melissa for far too long. Characters like Ellie recede into the background to make way for Melissa’s insecurities and cruelty. It’s a shame as Ellie is perhaps the most morally centered and relatable of the cast, but is essentially only there as a tool for the audience to see Abigail and Jeremy’s increasingly intimate rehearsals. There are often 30 minute gaps between her scenes, and later, she isn’t even written off properly; she simply disappears.

Shephard also loses potential screentime as the film gives it to Nadia Alexander, who’s sadly the least refined actor of the bunch. Her performance as Melissa was more infuriating than captivating, as she falls into typical mean girl clichés of taunts, pouts, and brooding. Her desire to salvage her shattered pride is obvious, but just isn’t interesting enough compared to the affair progressing in the background.

In the end, “Blame” was a fine first attempt at a drama showing the duality of two very different girls. It was unique as the work of “The Crucible” influenced and drove the plot forward. While it works as a film, its open-endedness, as well as reliance on clichés and Alexander’s character, results in the film feeling very disjointed and uneven at parts. Still, “Blame” does show that Quinn Shephard is a young, capable director to definitely look out for in the future.

6.8/10. Decent.

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