Time for a performance review! A big shout out here to Decider’s Joe Reid (operating on the handle @joereid on twitter and tumblr, go check him out) whose enthusiasm for the film on those sites and his contributions to The Film Experience podcast (thefilmexperience.net, even more fabulous) encouraged me to see this gem. Now on with the show!
I’ve spent a good while trying to write a review of The Final Girlsitself, but struggled in trying to get a real paper out of it after having seen it for the first time about two months ago. Plenty of parts stuck in the memory fine, but I felt qualms that the screenplay was a strong in parts and weak in others as I remembered, and wanted to be sure that the performances were as sturdy as I was espousing they were. A few weeks out from my Women-in-Film class, which capped itself off with analyzing several horror films and which I was taking the first time I watched the film, the road bumps I’d noticed before felt less egregious, and the highs slightly less high, though that may have been out of familiarity. None of the ways it trips up are worth everything it gets so wonderfully right, and even all the things it adds to itself. Adopted a fairly warm style to the milieu it’s parodying, The Final Girls is constantly finding new angles and scenarios for its characters and narrative without collapsing into itself the way Cabin in the Woods and Adaptation do in their final half hours. Its premise, of a handful of high school classmates accidentally hopping into a horror movie and trying to return home, possibly with the characters from the film in tow, The Final Girls’s flaws are a little more scattered, and I wished it was willing to bust up the genre more than it did, but it remains a real pleasure throughout as much through the script as it does through a surprising amount of visual style and the commitment of the performers. Editing, sound, and cinematography do a lot of work, like in the American Horror Story: Murder House style way of the characters realizing they’re trapped in the film the same way one of the show’s protagonists realizes she’s died, the entire sequence of setting off the booby trap the characters have laid for Billy Murphy, the final battle between him and protagonist Max. It’s stylistic virtues aren’t just more than you’re expecting but also find multiple new ways to present itself across all fronts.
The cast, too, is uniformly strong and almost completely in sync with the film’s tone and variant style of performance, with characters of the now behaving differently than characters of the then. It’s a culture-clash comedy across decades of acting and genre style, save Adam DeVine being allowed free reign to discordantly improv in that exact way he always does. But aside from him, all the other characters are given room to develop and hilarious lines, often in unexpected ways. The trajectory of Nina Dobrev’s antagonistic ex-best friend of Max’s gives her room to stand on in her nastiness, more often driven by uncouth survival instincts than it is classroom bitchiness, but also allows her a surprisingly poignant conversation to explain herself with Max and her friend Gertie, and plenty of funny lines for Dobrev to chew on. Early on Dobrev’s Vicki politely nixes the theory they’re in Heaven because Max is Jewish, and repeatedly asks where on Earth she can get an axe once they arrive in camp. Alia Shawkat’s Gertie gets great lines and gives even better reaction shots and freak-outs, and Angela Timbur’s nympho counselor Tina gets funnier the more caricature-ish and regressive her character becomes, in contrast to all the character development going on around her. Taissa Farmiga continues to display real talent at jiving between the insane and the sincere tones of the bizarre horror projects she signs on for, a slightly wackier, genre-friendlier version of that grounding Kristen Stewart’s charisma can do, and she’s a welcome anchor for the whole project. The film’s spread out enough that it’s not all on her shoulders, but she carries a larger range of emotional and narrative tasks than almost anyone else in the cast and delivers on all fronts.
That “almost”, though, is because the most challenging part by far is the dual role of downtrodden mother/actress Amanda Cartwright, and that of her most famous character, the sweet Camp Bloodbathcounselor/bodycount filler Nancy, who Max three years after her mother has died in a car crash. Both roles, but especially Nancy, is played by Malin Åkerman, with incredible delicacy and an almost confronting amount of emotional transparency. In her only sequence as Amanda, we see learn everything she’s trying to get and trying to avoid. We know from her posture, the way she walks to the car, that Amanda thinks she probably isn’t going to get whatever part she was auditioning for. Or maybe she’s just feeling pigeonholed, again, by how she’s seemingly trapped in limbo because of her Camp Bloodbath role, and is sick of dealing with another director who only sees her as that. Maybe both, but it’s the limbo stuff she tells Max about as the two drive home. Farmiga and Åkerman give a full triage on the mother-daughter dynamics between them as Max worries about money for bills until Amanda throws them out the window, cranks the radio, and the two dance to “Bette Davis Eyes” in the car as Amanda marvels at her daughter, calling Max the only thing she ever got right. But it’s a panicked reaction to Max spilling coffee over her headshots that’s the last thing Amanda ever says before they’re clipped by another car, sending them careening down the road and killing Amanda. Max lives, still grieving her mother three years later, and adamantly refusing to attend a 20th anniversary screening of the two Camp Bloodbath films three years to the day later on the grounds of that grief, at least until the guy running it offers to do her homework for her in exchange for her showing up.
From there our crop of human characters gather together and are transported into Camp Bloodbath itself to escape the theater burning down, rendered in slo-mo as the ashes of a toke ignites a spilled bottle of alcohol. They meet the car carrying almost all of the camp’s counselor’s twice before agreeing to hop on the third time, and from there we meet Nancy herself, gloriously back-lit with sunlight as she wakes up from a nap in the back of the buggy. And it’s here, as she asks a visibly startled Max if this is the first time she’s been away from home, conveying the earnestness of the character without pushing it in the slightest, that a very basic but incredibly effective tenant of Åkerman’s performance reveals itself: a rejection of subtext. Max spends their scenes together fluctuating between treating Nancy as her mother and Nancy as Nancy, but Åkerman never leans into “playing Amanda” and stoking Max’s confused feels. Her actions are completely derived from the character, though we do see small glimmers of what Amanda herself may have put into the role. As one of the characters of the film-within-the-film, Åkerman also has to keep her style of performance within that of the 80’s horror films The Final Girls so affectionately skewers, and again Åkerman plays it completely straight. She fits snuggly into the “Nice Girl” trope without ever pushing it, and even as she starts grasping and accepting not just that she’s a film character but that she can be more than that, Åkerman always plays her as a film character.
In group scenes Nancy is neither more or less compelling or active a presence than any of the other characters, and Åkerman doesn’t try and foreground her when the moment isn’t earned. As interesting as her reactions often are, neither she nor the camera try and highlight her in moments that are about everyone. From the moment the humans decide to try and save the character’s lives Max insists on shadowing Nancy, leading them to have multiple scenes alone together: Max asking Nancy not to sleep with Kurt; Max stopping her from sleeping with him; Max comforting Nancy after being told she’s not fit to kill Billy; preparing weaponry to kill him together; recuperating in an abandoned church; all of these scenes have a surprising amount of pathos and, in the latter three cases especially, travel to genuinely unexpected emotional territory. Farmiga and Åkerman’s scenes together quickly become the heart and soul of The Final Girls, but it’s even clearer than it’s Åkerman who’s walking on a much higher tightrope, not just fulfilling the demands of the script but enriching them with an almost alarming level of directness in her playing. There’s an almost contradictory presentation of depth here, as Nancy doles out old and new dreams for herself, giving us a greater understanding of her without removing the character completely from her archetype. I wonder how much to even say about the specifics of these scenes, given everything I’ve said about how unexpectedly lovely and poignant they are. If this ends up persuading anyone at all to watch this movie, I wouldn’t want to give up exactly what those moments ultimately are. But dammit, they’re worth some description, some mention, some unqualified exuberance, so here’s a kind-of run down of the latter three scenes I referenced at the top of the paragraph. That said, feel free to skip it entirely.
<<<All of these are similar kinds of scenes – as I mentioned, the film is more than willing to repeatedly stop and explore the bond between Max and Nancy as their relationship with each other, Nancy’s relationship to her own personhood, and their relationship to escaping the film all fluctuate – but each goes off on a track that’s rendered with more heart than you expect going in. This is not to lessen her early scenes with Max, before Nancy knows she’s in a movie, but they aren’t as rich to look at compared to what happens once the tea is spilled. The first, as Nancy grapples with the idea that she’s doomed to die by design, sees her confess to Max a future for herself that sounds remarkably similar to the one Amanda ended up getting before she died, invoking that common interview question of how much of themselves an actor puts into any given part. Her second big scene comes while prepping tampon arrows to torch and shoot at Billy with Max, and it’s here that she starts to really wonder what her life could be like once they defeat him and escape Camp Bloodbath. Nancy’s joy at being told by Max that she can go to college and create a real life palpably fills the room as she starts babbling all the things she wants to do with herself, tripping up at being told people don’t shop at malls anymore but going right back on pace saying she wants to learn what online is and use it, get an education, a daughter, and live in California. You can feel Nancy coming alive in this moment, see her hurriedly think of anything and everything she could possibly want to do with herself, overjoyed to share these ideas with Max, just as excited, if not more so, at the possibility of living with Max once this all ends. I quibble with the structuring of her final scene, a last goodbye in the face of imminent death, but the actresses more than make up for it as Max finally, tearfully reveals that Nancy is played by the woman who is her dead mother, accepting this with the stride she has everything else up til now while doing her best to comfort Max. It’s a painful goodbye, calling back to Max’s final scene with Amanda, and I ugly cried through the whole last minute of it.>>>
Throughout, Malin Åkerman realizes her scenes with a nakedly direct level of emotional candor, grace, and genuine goodness, all without seeming to strain in the slightest. It’s a resistance to pandering that only makes the performance more powerful, and a pretty damn indelible rendering of an odd character, strewn with easy pitfalls a lazier actress might’ve hopped into. Åkerman doesn’t just fulfill the requirements of the script but brings adds to them with a dizzying level of sincerity and depth. Who knows, only 38 films into the 2015 film year – yikes, that feels even smaller typing it out – how well she will stack up next to performances from Julianne Moore, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lise Roy, and who knows how many others But from my viewpoint, not just of that year’s crop but totally outside it, hers is an unbelievably tricky part realized better than I could’ve ever hoped for. It’s weirder than almost anything that’s ever been up for an Academy Award, or anything that’s ever been within throwing distance of a nomination, but to my mind it’s certainly deserving of recognition beyond the few horror-themed awards shows and websites that covered it and scattered laurels from online critics and people like me who Have Blogs And Only Have Blogs. The Final Girls feels like the rare meta-anything that manages to stay wholly original its whole runtime, resisting the urge to ironically (or not) wind up succumbing into becoming the kind of project it’d been skewering up til that point. At just over ninety minutes, it’s a treat no matter how you slice it, but the crown jewel of this project is doubtless the miraculous turn that Malin Åkerman pulls off. It’s for sure the kind of “heart and soul of the movie” part that doubtlessly would have impact by design alone, but Åkerman does one better and makes Nancy remarkable by making her wants and her feelings as real as anyone else’s, keeping her in her own time and style of being, and making her completely extraordinary as a result.