”References?” You mean, “People I went to theatre school with”?
If you’ve ever done theater in college, this film will probably touch a couple of different and sometimes discomfiting nerves. If you’ve no idea what theater in college is like, the film will still resonate because the whole reason you do theater in college is to try and capture something genuine, immediate, and human in a decidedly restricted and structured medium. That kind of an attempt is fascinating even if you’ve never even seen a play live (Which you should — go see a play if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you?). Preparing a play, rehearsing and fleshing out the writing, forces its participants to get super vulnerable (if it’s done right, anyway) and face things about themselves in front of a group of other people that can cause all sorts of embarrassment if done in a hostile environment. The great thing about Stephen Cone’s Black Box is that it understands this terrifying thing about doing theater to such a devastating extent that the film can, rightly, become hard to watch at times.
Josephine Decker plays Holly, an MFA candidate in directing at a midwest university. Struggling to figure out what to stage for her thesis project, Holly concludes that a Flowers In The Attic-derivative “young adult novel” would be the perfect project, as it’s so over the top of melodramatic that putting on a performance that managed to wring actual moments of truth from the trashy source material would be an astounding achievement. The Reaper’s Children, the fictitious novel in question, has to do primarily with a creepy Victorian foster home run by sadistic, backwards religious fanatics hell-bent on exorcising the life out of their various boarders. Aside from a fairly rote mockumentary-esque introductory sequence getting us acquainted with the various actors in the program (which reveals some interesting tidbits about their lives), the film effectively creates a seamless and eerie correlation between the weirdo grotesqueries of the novel on which it’s based and the developing neuroses of the director and her cast.
What Black Box does exceedingly well, however, is to set the already awkward and vulnerable nature of grad student theater alongside the embarrassingly melodramatic overtones of V.C. Andrews-style young adult fiction. Austin Pendleton absolutely kills it in this film, playing the author of the book that so thoroughly piques the young director’s interest. After having been invited to observe rehearsals by Holly’s thesis advisor (what a bitch), his failed aspirations toward great literature bar him from fully enjoying Holly’s admiration of his work. Think about how hard it would be if the thing someone loved you for most was also the thing from which you derived the most shame: that slight recoil is exactly what Pendleton’s performance captures. The burnt-out author does his best to enjoy the work of the young folks on stage in front of him, to be sure, but the only smiles he can manage come off more like winces than anything else.
Mr. Cone uses long, drawn-out, and viscerally arresting close-up reaction shots liberally throughout the film, although they never quite reach the point of feeling overdone. What makes this technique so interesting is the subject matter at hand. A black box theater, while very small and intimate, is still the province of grand gestures and using the entire body as a tool during a performance. What Cone manages to capture by committing all this to film are the small moments — the doubts and fears and joys that accompany any emotionally wrenching bit of stage business. Cone and his crew have made a hypnotic and deeply felt movie. I really can’t wait to see what they do next.