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TIFF Review: Her Smell – “Elisabeth Moss is mesmerizing”

There were a lot of music-centric films this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, most revolving around women musicians.  Vox Lux, Wild Rose, Teen Spirit and even A Star is Born shared among them stories of discovery, addiction, and celebrity.  Add another to this list of films, which has a bit of all three, in Alex Ross Perry‘s Her Smell.

Through video flashbacks we meet Something She, a punk/alternative band having just made it through to the big time, getting the cover of Spin magazine.  Fronted by lead singer Becky (Elisabeth Moss), the three women are young, vibrant and excited by success.  Except in the present, Becky is frenetic, disoriented, hyperactive, and riddled with addiction that makes her late for gigs, if she shows up at all, and horrible to her bandmates.  In the midst of losing everything and finding out their manager has a new young band in the wings, she is desperate to try and create something new, just as she is in the midst of self destruction.

The first half of Her Smell is manic and frantic in pace.  It’s definitely hard to believe this is the same guy that wrote the screenplay for Christopher Robin.  Winnie-the-Pooh would not survive here.  With long tracking shots that follow Becky and her bandmates through the backstage area, Perry creates a sense of chaos.  Coupled with truly vexing ‘music’ (and there are reasons for those quotes as much of the soundtrack is sporadic noises) by Keegan DeWitt, the visuals truly make the audience a part of Becky’s madness. And Moss, in a true departure from her previous roles is mesmerizing, making sure that this is one train wreck from which you can’t look away.  The supporting cast has quite a few recognizable faces, including standouts Virginia Madsen as Becky’s mother, Dan Stevens as her former partner and Cara Delevingne as the drummer from the younger band.  They all act as a stark contrast to how far Becky has fallen.

At over two hours in length Her Smell is definitely an investment, and whether you enjoy it or not will depend on whether you can bear to stand so much time with Becky and her addled mind and still care for her.  A quieter, more redemptive second half awaits you if you make it through.  Her Smell doesn’t tell a new story, but certainly does so in an original way.  And to watch Moss dial up this performance after seeing so much restraint in The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly something special and well worth a ticket to the show.

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