2017 Tribeca Film Festival: It goes without saying that Quinn Shephard is an impatient actress. That’s a compliment, too. Unwilling to wait years before making her filmmaking debut, the 22-year-old actress has written, directed, edited and starred in “Blame,” an ambitious high school-set drama. A quadruple threat, any work that Shephard managed here would be worthy of some praise, but this is a tricky movie to pull off. A dark drama/morality tale, it’s a little on the nose and lacking subtlety, but the good very much outweighs the bad. “Blame” is one of the better Tribeca titles this year and announces Shephard as someone to keep a very close eye on.
A retelling of “The Crucible” but set in high school, “Blame” walks a fine line. It’s not a tongue-in-cheek modern adaptation, but it’s not a direct remake either. Closer in tone and feel to “O” than “10 Things I Hate About You,” though always its own beast, “Blame” really goes deep into the drama of it all. Without any overly likable characters, it can be a hard sit, but the strong filmmaking and performances guide the film.
After a stint away from school due to a breakdown last year, Abigail Grey (Shephard) is back at the start of the new school year. Mocked as “Sybil” by mean girl Melissa Bowman (Nadia Alexander), Abigail is very much an outsider. Then, in their drama class, a substitute takes over. Their regular teacher has gone into labor, so now Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina) is teaching the class. He opts to have them read and perform “The Crucible” in a showcase, something that sparks both Abigail and Melissa.
Aware of the class dynamics, Jeremy chooses Abigail to play the lead over Melissa, something that makes the vindictive latter young lady only more bitter and determined to ruin the former. As Abigail and Jeremy grow close, Melissa tasks her second in command Sophie Grant (Sarah Mezzanotte) to help bring Abigail down. Through it all, we see everyone’s less than ideal home lives, suggesting why the poor decisions to come are not all their own doing. Those familiar with Arthur Miller‘s classic play will have an idea where things go, though the resolution here is a bit different.
Quinn Shephard is at her best directing “Blame,” though her writing and acting are strong as well. There’s just a confidence on hand in her filmmaking that’s front and center. Co-writing with Laurie Shephard, there’s just the right amount of parallels between Miller’s play and this film. If she can pull off co-writing, editing, directing and starring in something like this, then the sky is the limit for her.
Helping to strengthen the movie are the other performances, notably Nadia Alexander. Not only does she effectively portray an absolutely monstrous teenager, she also adeptly humanizes her. In fact, her quieter moments at the end are nearly heartbreaking. Sarah Mezzanotte is solid yet underused, while Chris Messina is even more low-key than usual. Both are exactly who they need their characters to be. Also on hand are Tessa Albertson, Tate Donovan, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Luke Slattery and more.
If there’s a lack of subtlety on display here, it’s balanced by committed performances and a consistent mood. “Blame” won’t blow many people away, but it’s an amazing calling card for Shephard. Not only does she have a future both in front of and behind the camera, I’d watch for Alexander as well. They’ve both got the goods. When this one moves beyond Tribeca, it’s worth checking out.