Roughly the first half of Her Smell, a new drama starring Elisabeth Moss and Eric Stoltz, feels sort of like getting a root canal without any anesthetic. It’s claustrophobic, loud and very painful. It feels less like something you’re watching than a thing being done to you, by a sadist. The second half brings some relief, trading a steady stream of cinematic torture for a quiet, post-traumatic clarity, but it’s a tough slog to get there.
It’s worth it though.
Moss plays Becky Something, a drug-addled punk rocker with absolutely no regard for anyone in her life, except maybe her dealer, her shaman (don’t ask) and, occasionally, her helpless newborn. She’s abusive, violent, narcissistic, manipulative and really, really high. Imagine Courtney Love circa 1992 on a cocktail of meth, heroin and whatever meds they might’ve given people with borderline personality disorder back then. Becky’s group, Something She, is a three-piece outfit in the vein of the riot grrrl punk bands of the era, like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, or even their prototypes, L7 and Babes in Toyland (the film’s director, Alex Ross Perry, says that for all of Becky Something’s extraordinarily grating similarities to Courtney Love, Hole was not an inspiration).
Something She had been pretty big just a year or two prior to when we first meet Becky, backstage at a club called Her Smell after a show. That scene, which also opens the film, stretches on for a seemingly endless half-hour in which Becky spins out of control in every direction possible. The camera hugs the chaos with a bear’s grip, refusing to let go. It’s clear that Something She is pretty much cooked, and everyone in Becky’s orbit, including her band mates and their producer (Stoltz), have no choice but to stay put, risking their own demise in hopes of squeezing a few more drops of creative genius out of the “queen.” Without Becky, none of them amounts to much.
The second half of the film presents the possibility of redemption, even for someone as far gone as Becky Something, but it’s hardly glamorous. Even if Hole wasn’t among Perry’s inspirations, I couldn’t help but think of the title of that band’s 1994 album as I watched Becky self-destruct and then, sort of, put herself back together again: Live Through This.
In his third film with Moss, Perry (Listen Up Philip, Queen of the Earth) really captures the zeitgeist of the early ’90s punk scene: self-destructive nihilism, Gen-X self-absorption and a record industry on the verge of extinction. Eric Stoltz gives one of his best performances in years as Something She’s aging producer, Howard. Dan Stevens, as Becky’s ex, and Agyness Deyn, as her band mate, stabilize the film’s most frantic moments, and in the end, show Becky what responsibility looks like.
Her Smell also includes original music by Alicia Bognanno of Bully and stellar performances by Virginia Madsen, as Becky’s mother, and Amber Heard and Cara Jocelyn Delevingne as fellow musicians, among others. It opens in New York on Friday, April 12th, in L.A. on the 19th, and then nationally.