“Those people deserve a show!”
Last year, Alex Ross Perry did just that: he gave us a show. A disorienting, intoxicated, and rancid show all within an arduous riot grrrl epic. Now, just over a year later after it’s limited release in the U.S., I’m going to attempt to convey why it’s truly one of the best films of the past decade.
Obviously just by the title, Her Smell is not an easy watch by any means. Not only is this film a five act-epic, each of which feels like a short film within itself, but it also displays Becky Something’s (played by a phenomenal Elisabeth Moss) harrowing journey from addiction to recovery. The entire duration of the film dissects the complex codependency that Becky has with her large, yet immediate, social circle, and it’s pulled off masterfully. Everyone from her bandmates Ali (Gayle Rankin) and Mari (Agyness Deyn), to her ex-husband (Dan Stevens), and even her own mother (Virginia Madsen) all have Something She’s steel-plated hooks in their backs, and Moss’ portrayal of Becky Something is the magnet dragging them all together. Of course, no one would voluntarily be in any of their positions, but they all rely on Becky for something to complete their lives. Perry intricately displays Becky’s almost-loveless relationships most notably through the relationship between the bandmates of Something She. The excited and boisterous relationship that the girls had with each other on old home movie footage slowly fizzled out into a connection lacking love and creativity. As heard in the film’s angsty soundtrack, beautifully created by Bully’s Alicia Bognanno, Something She had an undeniable collective creativity that was once adored by sold-out arenas and fans worldwide. Now, their music is the product of sporadic “creative bursts” from Becky as everyone around her watches in dismay, hoping she can create a final product that’s passable for a new record. It’s gutting to see how everyone in Becky’s life is treated, but it’s even more horrifying to see the apathy towards her addiction and her overall struggle with fame, as they all just sit and tolerate her consistent battering. Essentially, everyone is waiting for Becky to finally bottom-out.
To get the full weight of Becky’s coked-out conversations and her moments of painful indifference, Her Smell is packed with beautiful long takes and steadicam tracking shots. Nothing about this film cares about how in-your-face it is or how long Becky’s behavior festers within you, and it truly spares no painful details while doing so. Its claustrophobic cinematography, done by Sean Price Williams, throughout acts 1-3 eventually releases its chokehold in acts 4 and 5 to perfectly capture this momentous story and its characters. To wonderfully support every scene, Keegan DeWitt’s subliminally grimy score adds a layer of tension that you wouldn’t even realize after several viewings: it’s act-long tracks forcibly transport you into the dingy backstage of a New York venue and throw you into a shitstorm you can’t escape from. The distorted synths and erratic percussion all piled on-top of drowned-out cheers from the crowd is the perfect score for self-destruction. On a technical level, this film knows how to make you anxious, and it exploits that very weak point until you’re finally laying side-by-side with Becky at the bottom.
Clearly after all of the buzz throughout this piece, this film wouldn’t be the distinct piece of work it is without Elisabeth Moss’ tour-de-force performance. She understands that we’re all here for a show, and boy, does she put one on for us. Moss completely loses herself in the world of Becky Something, as she grooms new talent, plummets backstage, and goes through the grueling process of sobriety to become a better mother and the savior that punk rock needs. All throughout the first few acts, Becky is an absolute trainwreck and Moss makes sure the audience is seated in the last car to get crunched: she knows we’ll all stay until the very end to see her demise. As Moss pinballs from person to person, taking what she wants and spitting in the eyes of those around her in return, she has an unbridled, chaotic energy that cannot be ignored. Her stream-of-consciousness monologues, aided by whatever drug is in her system, are incredibly intoxicating as she commands the screen with her bully-like attitude and complete abandonment of decency. In addition to deeply resonating with the role of Becky Something, Moss also packs each shot with her own takes on little treats from Perry’s screenplay, including uncomfortably long personal glares, unintentional mnemonics, and hellish meltdowns. By the end of the third act, she’s spiraled so far out of control that she’s beyond unrecognizable as the edgy frontwoman of Something She and regresses back to the sheltered childhood she once knew. As the film finally gains its composure in the final two acts, we see Becky, née Rebecca Adamcyzk, as she champions her past struggles as an almost-shell of a human. Becky no longer fights to fill the screen, as she stares blankly at the wall of her empty, wooden house and frequently leaves her own shots to do mundane tasks. Despite the emotional and physical emptiness of act four, Moss still has full control over the viewer, as she makes us feel the full weight of her regret and penitence with her as she reconnects to her roots. Finally, by act five, Becky is finally present but not a triumphant phoenix by any means, as she is still hesitant about her fame and constantly fighting the urge to relapse. However, Becky’s determination has shifted: she’s determined to stay sober, to be a better mother for her daughter, and to leave a positive final impression on the world of punk rock. Throughout the colossus character arc of Becky Something, Moss gives it her absolute all to paint a painfully authentic portrait of a woman struggling with addiction, fame, and relationships that ends up being one of the best performances of the whole decade.
Overall, this film is far from bland: it’s brash, disgusting, and flat-out rude. It’s a painful love letter to the rock world and to those who have loved and lost to the sound of thrashing guitars, and the end result is beautiful. The cast and crew’s commitment to this story is absolutely stunning to see, amidst the chaos of it all. Her Smell’s incredible ability to tell the story of a flawed woman as she spirals towards the floor of a dingy venue and emerges as a sober and determined mother will ensure the film a top-notch spot in riot grrrl and film history alike.