SXSW Film Festival Review: M.F.A.

Females seeking revenge is a theme that seems to be popping up a lot in films as of late. Personally, I don’t have a problem with this as I’ve enjoyed seeing women fight for what they believe in and exact retribution on those who have wronged them. When I first heard about director Natalia Leite’s newest film M.F.A, I thought it would be an interesting portrayal of a woman seeking revenge after being assaulted. What I wasn’t expecting was just how powerful this film was in regards to sexaul assault awareness and the parallels I found between my life and that of the lead character, Noelle.

M.F.A. centers around Noelle, an art school student, who goes through an incredible transformation after being sexually assaulted at a party. Not only does her persona completely change, but she uses her attack as a way to express herself through her artwork.  It’s almost as if the assault itself breaks through her artist block and pushes her to become the artist she truly is.  The film stars the enormously talented Francesca Eastwood as well as Clifton Collins Jr., Leah McKendrick, and David Huynh and shines a much needed light on the lack of repercussions men face when accused and/or convicted of sexual assault.

I’m going to get a bit personal here, so bear with me. Outside of all my horror work, I’m an Interior Designer and went to art school.  I’ve also been sexually harassed and assaulted, though my experience differed from that of Noelle’s and was not during my time at school. After each of these violations, I was told to stay quiet and not to tell anyone what happened. Even when I finally did, those men were never reprimanded for their actions, in fact, I was the one that ended up having to leave a job because of it. I know what it feels like to have no one believe you, to nonchalantly brush off what’s happened to you, and to even go so far as to question if maybe it’s all your fault.  It’s heartbreaking and demoralizing, but as the years have gone by I’ve taken a stand in becoming  more vocal about sexual assault and how we need to stop blaming the victim and start focusing on the perpetrator.

That’s why I love M.F.A. so much. The film takes a much needed stance against these actions and showcases why society seems so forgiving towards these men, especially those who have accumulated quite a few accolades within the sports department. Granted, I loved seeing the cold and ruthless vengeance that was served to our male counterparts in such an unapologetic way; however, one of the more powerful scenes took place when Noelle went to a sexual assault support and/or awareness group. The women there were discussing ways in which they could bring more attention to this issues as though they were all part of a tupperware party.  The cheery dispositions and bright pops of colors during this moment were so jarring set against the subject matter at hand. Finally, Noelle states, “Or men could just stop assaulting us” and at that moment the group got quiet. Because, at the end of the day, carrying a rape whistle, wearing clothes that don’t show skin, making sure your makeup isn’t too “slutty”, won’t deter someone from assaulting you if that is their goal.

What makes this film work so well is not only is the storyline applicable to what is going on in the world today, but the acting talent from Francesca Eastwood and Leah McKendrich.  The characters that these two women play have each experienced their own assault and have dealt with it in a much different way. Both scenarios aren’t that far fetched and even their responses to what has happened to them is believable. The audience would be hard pressed to not feel empathy towards these characters and be understanding to why they have chosen their own personal paths.

Another aspect of the film that really inspired me was the artwork.  When we first meet Noelle, we can tell that she has a definitive level of talent, but she can’t seem to push herself out of her comfort zone. I’m not saying that artists need to go through a traumatic event to help spur a level of greatness in their artwork, but sometimes using art as an outlet to come to terms with a horrifying experience can lend itself to the healing process.  Throughout the film, the audience experiences the changes that happen within Noelle from the moment of her attack to the last frame of the film.  Throughout this time, Noelle is able to find herself, and what her art means to her, by the ever changing turn of events in her life.

Overall, M.F.A. is a powerful film that deserves all the praises it’s been getting.  I’m all about these women characters seeking justifiable revenge on their assailants and I think there is a strong sense of femininity within films like this. I think it’s important to continue to make films that are unapologetic in what they are saying and to focus on real world issues such as sexual assault, especially on-campus assaults. All in all, I’m really glad that this movie exists because it helped me look back on my experiences and to remember that I’m not alone. Murder definitely isn’t always the answer, but if we can instill a fear of God into men who think they are not allowed to have any consequences for their actions, than that is fine by me.

Shannon McGrew
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