One of the most divisive films I’ve seen at SXSW this year is the midnighter EXCESS FLESH. Following an abusive roommate relationship where one girl (Jill, Bethany Orr) suffers from body image issues and the other (Jennifer, Mary Loveless) is frighteningly thin and seems to be able to eat junk all the time, EXCESS FLESH is not an easy film. Jill tortures herself by eating practically nothing, than force feeds herself ten plus tubs of macaroni and cheese, sometimes just licking the cheese off, sometimes shoving overflowing spoonfuls in one after the other. Her roommate teases her for staying in, for being a slacker, and for being fat (which she most assuredly isn’t). She also steals her crush, having sex with him with Jill in the next room. As the relationship gets more mean-spirited, Jill takes matters to the extreme, chaining Jennifer up in her room and subjecting her to what can only be classified as food torture. This is SINGLE WHITE FEMALE to a demonic level, with two engrossing performances and directorial style that is not afraid to take chances.

The film may not have been a good choice for the Alamo Drafthouse (I quickly finished my baked pretzel ten minutes in), but it’s the rare film that can please a late night crowd and yet still is about something. The director masterfully uses music video style editing and vivacity, including close-ups of eating that were both sexy and disgusting at the same time. Although the film has some pacing issues (I’d suggest cutting fifteen to twenty minutes out just to get the most out of the audience), the imagery on-screen is always powerful. The two leads are fearless, filling the roles with depth and subtlety even if the script gets a bit repetitious at times. A part of me wishes high school health teachers could show this to their classes. Still, it’s not an easy film at all. Jennifer is thoroughly unlikable and it’s hard to understand how she and Jill became friends… until they talk about food, their common ground. Jennifer serves as both Jill’s constant warden and her temptation. Nothing is quite as specifically heartbreaking as someone on a diet watching another person eat (and even cooking). It’s a smart film, and one that anyone who has lived through our known someone with body issues will find powerful. I had a chance to talk with director Patrick Kennelly and actresses Bethany Orr and Mary Loveless about their unforgiving film.

“Well, all the projects that I’ve done in the past are not easy,” says Kennelly, “[these are]people I’ve been working with for many, many years who have a trust and belief in what I’m doing and that we have an audience out there for this kind of thing.” Much of the cast and crew went to school together, including the lead actresses and co-writer. “It’s about finding the right project,” he says, “it’s about building the pieces brick by brick.” In this case, the right project is a mixed-genre piece that is equal parts drama and horror. It feels different from most of the midnighters, because it is a thinky piece, but it is certainly terrifying. It will be interesting to see what audiences make of it, especially as it makes the rounds on the festival circuit, where there are always new audiences that don’t know what they are getting into. “To me, narrative and story is an important thing,” says Kennelly, “and as long as I have that there, I know that this is going to work because no matter what audiences will respond.”

For an audience not to respond to EXCESS FLESH, they would have to be dead – the images are so horrifying, the performances so vitriolic and there’s a great whiplash twist at the end of the film. Kennelly says he was looking to make a movie that would open up a dialogue with the audience. “Those are the type of the movies that I will go to see, that I respond to,” the director says, “I want to be challenged. I want to be confronted. And so, I have to look at myself first as the prime audience.”

If the film is exacting, the shoot was even more so. Unlike most films, EXCESS FLESH was shot almost entirely in sequence. Kennelly comes from a theater background and certainly understands the concept of going through a character from start to finish, which can be really helpful to actors. Orr agrees: “I think it was really important because it was such an explorative thing. In a way, none of us really knew what was going to happen, even thought we had this script. There were certain scenes that we riffed on, that we improved on, and of course, you will be discovering things in the moment all the time.” Shooting in sequence, the actors were able to watch their character’s relationship change gradually, scene-by-scene, as well as their personal relationship. “We had this fantastic rehearsal period right before we started, we did theater exercises to build that trust,” says Loveless, “we started at this great place and then it just kind of was like, ‘Rrrrahr!’ It’s tough to be chained up and have someone. Even though it is acting, you’re still the person there.” Orr agrees, “You’re having feelings the whole time. I was jealous of Mary [Loveless, playing Jennifer] actually, a lot, on set which was very inappropriate. Yeah, we were living it.”

One thing that made shooting in sequence almost necessary was the gradual destruction of the apartment, which becomes almost a compost heap by the end of the film. The set took on a rather overpowering smell as food carnage was replaced to the floor daily, stored away each night half-eaten and stepped in. “Yes, pungent,” agrees Orr. Many sequences, like the macaroni bit, a painfully exquisite four-minute long slow pull out, were done in one take. The audience cringes in their seats, but they should. These are girls who have put an iron chain on the refrigerator. “I think that that whole mac and cheese sequence is kind of the heart of the movie,” says the director, “We had a lot of people saying you need to cut this down. This is about the duration of that. This is about this ritual.” Kennelly is right. Many times when a director uses a long shot, it usually means they are hitting you over the head with it. But this one is different, it is completely engrossing and by the time it is over, you are so wrapped into it, you are like ‘oh, that was the end of the shot?’ and you don’t realize how long it had been going. “Even our camera crew was surprised that was the end of shot,” he jokes, “they thought it was going to end a few minutes earlier. People are looking at me like, are we still filming? I was like keep going.”

This is only one of many vivid images from the film, one which shows a great deal of style for a first time director. One of the most divisive sequences in the film is sure to be an extended dream sequence two-thirds of the way through. As Jill falls asleep to the television, she sees herself and Jennifer preparing food, it quickly spirals into a competition of sexual allure. “There are two things,” Kennelly explains, “follow the format of a cooking competition show and then cross that with a wet dream gone bad.” The sequence comes right when you need a bit of a breather from the actual action of the film, letting you see the psychological torture made manifest. The other thing that becomes clear, is how similar Jill and Jennifer are, two sides to the same person, in a way many roommates are. “Yeah you know, the work that we get to do together – the bonding and the trust stuff – we got to take on each other’s mannerisms,” says Orr, “there are really two aspects of human nature in all of us.” As Jill begins to take control over Jennifer and her abusive behavior, she becomes more and more like Jennifer. “Yeah, we start saying each other’s lines, too,” she says. “In particular, the scene with the cell phone, when we were looking over Rob’s texts. That was the challenge,” says Loveless, “without beating the audience’s head with it or seeming like I’m not grounded in my own Jennifer reality.”

This scene is one of the best in the film, after chaining Jennifer to a wall for days, suddenly they’re there now. It’s a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome, when you totally  rip someone apart and they’ve got nothing else and they are entirely dependent on the other person for anything. “They seem to cycle in and out of that,” says Orr, “the I need you, I need you, I hate you, I love you, don’t leave me.” Ultimately, at the end, it’s  “who is who?” “I mean, yeah, that was always the structuring [of it],” says Kennelly, “what they wore and you know, how they’re framed and how they have their interactions, fingernails, the movements in the opposite directions – that was a continuity nightmare.”

Hopefully EXCESS FLESH will find an audience willing to take in the horror AND the message. If the need for change in our body obsessed culture needed to be illustrated, an anecdote from set should serve well. Shooting one of the few sequences outside the apartment, in which Jennifer escapes her chains and gets out onto the streets, the team utilized their LA Silver Lake neighborhood. “I was running around in my underwear,” says Orr, and “some car drove by and was like ‘Good God, do some Pilates!’” Not surprisingly, this actually echoes something Jennifer says in the movie.

EXCESS FLESH screens once more at SXSW, today (Friday) at 4:45 at the Alamo Lamar. Next up is a screening at the Boston Underground Film Festival, March 26th.

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