Welcome to the 2019 CIRCUIT CONSIDERATIONS series. Highlighting the very best in film, acting, and technical achievements for the past 12 months that awards voters may need help remembering. Each day a different writer will make their plea for a specific film in a respective category. If you miss one, click the tag “Circuit Considerations 2019,” and if you have some suggestions, include them in the comments below!
Some performances hit you like a ton of bricks. Through the course of five acts, “Her Smell” star Elisabeth Moss gives us a masterclass of acting in many forms. Her work as Becky Something defies clichés. In the process, she delivers a performance with more range and surprises than any other performance this year. There’s something about Becky Something.
We’re introduced to Becky Something, the punk leader of the band “Something She,” drunk on more things than just power. As director Alex Ross Perry follows her through the backstage labyrinth, we see Becky at the hands of a higher power. That higher power – a personal shaman – is yet another power play Becky plays as the lead of “Something She.” While her bandmates – drummer Ali van der Wolff (a terrific Gayle Rankin) and bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn, completely wonderful) – are fed up with her, no one is more fed up than her ex-husband and baby Daddy, Danny (Dan Stevens). There’s the temptation to make this a simple story about addiction keeping a rock star from being a good mother. Becky’s issues are deeper than addiction. She seeks adoration and devotion, which are easier to buy than earn.
Though Becky began as an artist, addiction and fame have relegated her to a figurehead rather than a creator. The second act finds Becky in the recording studio with Something She. Rather than record new tracks, Becky drains her manager, Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz), of his money and her bandmates of their patience. We’re no strangers to Moss deliciously abusing people with her antics.
What makes this section key for Moss’ performance is how she reacts to new blood in the studio. When the Akergirls – a new girl group made up of Crassie Cassie (Cara Delevigne), Roxie Rotten (Ashley Benson) and Dottie O.Z. (Dylan Gelula) – comes into the studio, Becky reacts with glee, rather than jealousy. These new girls worship at the feet of Something She, a group that pioneered female punk bands, almost as a stand-in for Joan Jett and the Runaways. Becky always wants an audience. She casts aside her bandmates for these new protégés. Moss plays this as if she’s the witch from Hansel and Gretel, luring these impressionable children into her clutches. It’s an effective section of her performance.
Even when not on screen, Moss’ performance permeates every frame. Much of the third act involves Something She, their entourage and Becky’s Mom (Virginia Madsen) wondering and preparing for a perpetually late Becky. They’re in the same backstage set, but it feels more like a bunker for these people trying to weather the storm of Becky Something. Moss builds such a rich texture to Becky’s mania that her actions extend past the frame. One can only imagine the havoc Becky wreaks on the outside world, unencumbered by her various caregivers and support systems.
The final acts provide opportunity for redemption that we aren’t inclined to give. Just as Becky sought adoration, she also seeks forgiveness. These two wants are intrinsically linked through Moss’ performance. Slowing down feels like a prison to Becky. Yet, performing was also a prison for her in a way. Chaos is the status quo and the years of being in its grips have irreparably harmed her. The film introduces us to a newly sober Becky as she stares blankly in the distance and waits for a timer to go off. There’s a haunting hollowness to Moss’ performance in this moment. Without the frantic, kinetic energy of the stage, what is left of her?
Elisabeth Moss never asks for us to love her characters. She asks us to go on a journey with them. Becky’s journey in “Her Smell” is quite the roller coaster. It fills one with adrenaline, fear and dread. It jerks you around to the point that you question whether you like the experience or not. Once on the other side of it, one admires how skillful she is at portraying chaos and madness. Becky could easily have been a collection of tics and eccentricities. In Moss’ intuitive hands, she becomes a clearly defined work of messy art.