“Alright, whoa baby! She’s gorgeous! Alright, that looks good, how much is it?”
The speaker, in the opening scene of Imitation Girl, is a boy in his young teens (William Wakeland), diminished in static wideshot as he negotiates with two older men who have purchased a girlie magazine on his behalf. The boy’s words refer to cover girl Julianna Fox (Lauren Ashley Carter), reducing her to a masturbatory object and a commodity available for exchange. Yet when the boy’s private time with the magazine in the New Mexico desert is interrupted by the heavens opening up, he flees, and a different liquid is spattered all over the publication’s front page – a black alien ooze which, after washing over Julianna’s image, transforms into a perfect simulacrum of the porn star.
If this sounds like the set-up to an adolescent male fantasy like John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985), in fact the lustful boy is never seen again, and his initial scenes serve as a contrast to what follows, as the focus shifts to the parallel stories of the Imitation Girl finding her feet in a new world and a new body, and of the more worldly Julianna Fox in New York City struggling to find her own place in a life of disappointments and existential yearning.
The Imitation Girl is taken in by kindly Iranian siblings Saghi (Neimah Djourabchi) and Khahar (Sanam Erfani) – exiles like herself – from whom she is quick to learn the basics of bodily maintenance, language (chiefly Persian, with bits of English), love and the loss that comes with it, and the mysteries of human changeability. Yet if she is a true innocent, wide-eyed and eager to assimilate while testing the boundaries of her new corporeal form, the more jaded Julianna merely plays the innocent virgin in ‘cheerleader’ porn shoot scenarios, while wondering how she ever got into the business, and desperately looking for a way out of her current circumstances, whether through drug-assisted escapism, or swapping her white boyfriend (Adam David Thomspn ) for an African-American girlfriend (Marsha Stephanie Blake), or attempting to audition for a place in a music conservatory. When we first see the real Julianna in the film, she is looking at herself in the mirror in a changing room, contemplating her image, if perhaps not quite n the same way that the Boy did – and in a sense, this is also how we last see her, staring at her mirror self and finally succumbing wholly to her deep longing for alterity.
The feature debut of writer/director Natasha Kermani (although swiftly followed by her next film, Shattered, 2017), Imitation Girl is an exploration of feminine self and otherness beyond the male gaze. It has something in common with Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin (2013), although it substitutes that film’s near constant sense of menace and predation with poetic insight and wonderment. It also boasts not just Carter’s best performance, but her two best, in twin rôles that require her characters themselves to be performers too, as they embody identities different from – “but the same” as – themselves. Its ending, in a place of kaleidoscopic abstraction that offers a glimpse, on the “other side” of the looking glass, into a fluidly alien perspective, is a moment of pure, transcendent awe.