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TIFF 2021 Review: Violet – “A claustrophobic and affecting film”

Image courtesy of TIFF

“I’m fine. I don’t feel fine. Everything’s fine. Why can’t I feel fine?… Is there something wrong with me?”

Violet’s inner-most thoughts are racing, anxiety bubbling under the surface, coming to a boil.  But there’s another voice in her head, a voice that has never steered her wrong… right?  It’s a voice we all have, questioning our decisions, highlighting the fear an action might bring.  We might call it something different, but to Violet, a successful film producer, it’s called “the committee.”  It mimics the voice of her mother from her younger years telling her she’s not good enough, telling her what she should wear, silencing her from providing her opinions.  Violet’s inner struggles, an example of what many of us feel, is the subject of writer-director-producer Justine Bateman‘s feature directorial debut, Violet.

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From the outside, it looks like Violet (Olivia Munn) has everything one might want.  A nice car, a successful career where those in the film industry know and respect her, good looks.  She also has good friends, including Red (Luke Bracey) whose house she is currently crashing at, and Lila (Erica Ash) who serves as her voice of reason.  Violet exudes this cool, calm confidence on the outside.  She is aspirational.  But the committee in her head (voiced by Justin Theroux) keeps beating her down while her own voice struggles to be heard.  It gets to the point where Violet doesn’t even feel she knows who she is anymore.

At work, Violet is under the thumb of her loathsome and repugnant boss (Dennis Boutsikaris), despite the fact that she has brought him most of his success.  In her personal life she has repressed romantic feelings for Red.  She lashes out at those closest to her afraid to feel her own emotions, giving into the voice each and every time.  “Doesn’t that feel better?” it asks once Violet surrenders to its direction.  But one day, Lila makes a comment, and Violet starts to wonder, as is the film’s tagline – What would you do if you weren’t afraid? What if the voice has been lying to her all along?  Can she free herself from its grips?

Justine Bateman here crafts a claustrophobic and affecting film that brings anxiety to the screen in a unique and realistic way.  If you’ve ever had thoughts of self-doubt you’ll find this an interesting reflection on your own inner demons.   It’s exceptionally personal yet relatable. From the opening sequences that quickly depict small snippets of destruction after blazingly quiet production credits, Violet is unsettling and unnerving.  It’s a film that is experienced, not just watched, exactly as the director intended.

There are many voices in Violet.  There is the one she uses in the outside world, that Olivia Munn provides life to in a career-best performance.  There is the horribly harsh voice in her head that Theroux so caustically performs.  But Violet’s true inner thoughts, as suffocated as they have been, show up on screen in handwriting, often surrounding Munn’s face in frame, closing in on her as her anxiety escalates.  It may be off-putting for some, it’s a lot to keep track of and it is unrelenting, running through the entirety of the film.  There are even times where the inner voice talks over Violet speaking, but it’s effective and part of the genius in creating this feeling of confinement and unease.

While Violet’s boss is certainly portrayed as a vile creature, the true antagonist in this film lives only in Violet’s head, as it does for so many of us.  Bateman’s directorial debut provides a new and exciting voice that is most interested in delving into the human condition and our own internal conflict.  In the end, Violet is a film about freeing yourself from fear.  It’s about how the voice in our head can hold us back even when it seems to be propelling us forward.  Violet is about rediscovering the freedom of pursuing your true desires and finding out, in the end, there wasn’t much to fear at all.

Violet had its premiere at this year’s SXSW festival but has its Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival September 9th and is to be released in North America later this year.

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