Knives And Skin Berlinale film review: a missing teen sparks a synth-soaked mystery

Neo-feminist thriller Knives And Skin mashes genres into its small-town mystery

The world of Knives And Skin is one of neon light and synth sound. A face bathed in pink and backed by a wailing soundtrack watches a door. “Still not talking to me?” the mouth asks, large kitchen knife in hand, by her daughter’s bedroom. A frantic smile spreads across the woman’s face. The next morning, her fifteen-year-old daughter, Carolyn Harper (Whitley), is reported missing.

Knives And Skin is about the fallout caused by Carolyn’s disappearance. “Have You Seen Carolyn Harper?” posters are splashed around town as her school friends struggle to maintain normalcy. There is an insular, surrealism to the town, not unlike David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but Knives And Skin’s moody, adolescent existentialism is much closer to Heathers. “Being mean is all we’ve got,” spits a girl. There are a couple of moments like this that feel cathartic, however more often than not, they tip into the trite as Knives And Skin wears its feminism on a ‘The Future is Female’ t-shirt sleeve. An emphatically stated, “you treat girls like shit,” is supposed to be the film’s climatic rallying cry. It rings a little empty.

Where Reeder excels is when she gets away from the generic and stuck into the detail. There’s a gorgeous materiality to the film as fingers brush over trinkets and knick-knacks are passed back and forth across toilet stalls. They are lovingly shot by cinematographer, Christopher Rejano, as clutter that holds the girls’ few memories.

The film itself begins to become as similarly cluttered as its teenagers’ bedrooms. Knives And Skin is a murder-mystery, a teenage coming-of-age story, a surrealist satire of small-town America. There is also an unexplained supernatural weirdness. Carolyn leaves a glowing mark on a boy’s forehead while her glasses give off a similar neon light. These instances go unexplained – we don’t learn if this is a magic all the girls share or only Carolyn – and also are never repeated after the film’s opening. There is too much crammed into the film’s 111-minute runtime and as a result everything is shiny, slippery, neon surface with little depth.

Knives And Skin was seen and reviewed at Berlinale 2019.