REVIEW: Rid of Me Plays Rough — And is All the Better for It
Rid of Me, James Westby's scrappy dramedy about marriage, divorce and finding your inner punk rocker, begins with an act that makes flipping someone off or putting a brick through a windshield look passé. It takes place in a grocery store, and is the kind of ballsy, juvenile and legitimately shocking gesture that indie films used to chase after because studio features would never dare. These days the division between the two realms is fuzzy at best, but this film, which premiered earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, recalls when a little roughness in form and content was part of the charm.
Meris Canfield (Katie O'Grady), our heroine and the perpetrator of the Grocery Store Incident, didn't start off as the heavy-eyelined scary chick she's become in the intro. At the outset of Rid of Me, she doesn't really seem like the stuff around which a movie could be based. There just isn't much too her, physically ("She's lovely! Thin is in...?" attempts one insincere complimenter) or in terms of personality. A timorous, mousy girl with wide blue eyes and a smile just barely on the verge of sane, Meris is moving to Oregon from Irvine with her husband Mitch (John Keyser), who's taken a job back in his hometown of Laurelwood. She adores her spouse, a bluff, beefy guy who talks about being embarrassed that he's slinking back home in defeat but effortlessly rejoins his childhood friends, a matched set of suburbanite jocks who seem to have been waiting impatiently for his return to the fold.
Meris is a housewife -- "I love to cook," she repeats in conversation like a mantra -- and her isolation in the new town combined with her inability to mesh with Mitch's friends soon has her fraying at the edges. She has nothing in common with the three couples, who operate, with a edge of surreality, like a solid unit (or a cult), always together. The men are always glued to a sports game, mock tussling or reminiscing about high school misadventures, while the wives survey her skeptically as she struggles for things to say. Rid of Me, which Westby edited himself, makes frequent use of jittery jump cuts that recall nervous blinking, but tends to linger on Meris as she tries to make conversation, letting her every excruciating botched attempt to fit in linger. The gulf between her and Mitch grows wider with every uncomfortable social gathering ("You're a social butterfly Meris," she says, trying to psyche herself up in front of the mirror). She tracks dog shit onto one of their white carpets, she causes their softball team to lose, and she burns dinner -- and when Mitch's ex girlfriend moves back to town, a perfect fit amongst the rest of these perfectly groomed, well-off, slightly racist folks, it becomes clear there's no place for Meris.
So, halfway through the movie, Meris has to start over, alone in a town where she knows no one and no prospects. And this point is where Rid of Me shifts gears from an almost-thriller about a psychological breakdown to slow-building joyous journey in saying "Fuck it all," as our lonely, soft-spoken protagonist gets a menial job at a candy store and befriends Trudy (Orianna Herrman), a frazzled punk girl who takes Meris under her wing, gets her drunk, gets her awkwardly laid (by Everclear's Art Alexakis, even) and presents a snazzy alternative to desperately trying to fit in, which is to not fit in at all. Rid of Me doesn't cutesy up Meris's sudden change in lifestyle, just allows it to be a natural outgrowth of not having anything else to cling to -- if, say, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, the opposite should be true as well. And these scenes, at a karaoke club, a bowling alley, in a parking lot, capture the giddy feeling of not giving a damn, even if it's variety of emotion more commonly found in rebellious teenagers than fully grown former homemakers.
Rid of Me is a ragged film that doesn't always work. Beyond just the midpoint shift, it does seem frequently uneven tonally, and the heightened reality of Mitch and his friends isn't shared by the rest of the film. The jumpy editing annoys as often as it adds to the feel of the film -- there are segments in which it seems the filmmaker worried the audience would get bored if there were fewer than three cuts per second. But the film's never cloying sincerity is a winning quality, all tied into a heartfelt performance from Katie O'Grady, who inhabits Meris fully through her several transformations in search of her true self. It's a bittersweet ode to downward mobility and letting go that's a throwback to a time when slackerdom was more of a lifestyle choice than something forced upon you by grim economic realities.
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