“Having a system where you profit financially from incarcerating people,” says director Valerie Weiss, “there’s an incentive to keep those places full, whether those people should be there or not.” Weiss’s new film, THE ARCHER, which made its world premiere at SXSW thus week was partially inspired by the real life ‘Kids for Cash’ scandal in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where two judges got $2.8 million in kickbacks for sending kids to jail in private prisons, often for items as minimal as shoplifting DVDs or trespassing in a vacant building. “Before the election, those prisons were starting to be closed on the federal level” Weiss says, referring to memo from Sally Yates to phase out this method of incarceration, “and the next move Hillary Clinton wanted to do was to close them at the state level.” Unfortunately, on February 21st of this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that memo. Stocks for private prisons immediately went up.
In THE ARCHER, Lauren Pierce (Bailey Noble) is basically a good kid. She’s an archery champion in love with her teammate whose boyfriend gets rough with her. When Lauren loses her temper a bit, she ends up putting the boy in the hospital. The pressure of the scene prior is like the string on a bow pulled back, just waiting for release, and the archery metaphor serves sturdily through the entire film. “Her principles were so strong,” says the director about the lead character, “when they didn’t match with what the outside world was giving her, it created such a tension in her, she didn’t know what to do with it. So she would revolt.”
Noble plays Lauren with a chip on her shoulder, a hard exterior ready to fight at a moment’s notice, but with an ocean of emotion just below. Her plight goes from tragic to heart-breaking as she is not only sent off to a juvenile prison, but her friend turns on her, possibly out of fear of their relationship being discovered. “Bailey and I talked a lot about what are her principles versus what’s around her,” she says, “how hard she is on the people she loves and the people outside, versus what they can handle.” Lauren arrives to detention ready to snap. “When someone pulls that tension, sometimes you hit and sometimes you don’t,” says Weiss, “I see it in myself, my family, because I think we’re all pretty dutiful people. When you’re at odds and you try not to infringe on someone else with your inner discomfort, you can’t help but explode.”
Although neither the director nor the lead actress had an archery background, they took a free lesson with Pasadena Roving Archers, and what they learned that day made its way directly into the film. “The archer’s paradox we learned about from there, and the idea of it wobbling until you straighten out,” the director remembers, “that was such a great metaphor for coming of age and figuring out who you are. You need that wobble before you can know what you’re headed towards.” Noble took to archery right away, even hit a few bullseyes that first day, and her mother reealed she had an aunt in in New York who is a competitive archer. “Bailey didn’t know that, but maybe it runs in her genes and that’s what made her so fantastic,” say Weiss.
Although it’s probably impossible right now to make a movie about a female archer without being in the shadow of The Hunger Games, THE ARCHER finds its own footing very quickly. This is not a beacon for revolution, this is one person placed in an impossible situation, just trying to survive. “Other than our first meeting,” recalls the director, “with the studio saying about it — ‘it’s kind of like Hunger Games meets Orange is the New Black’ — I’ve never thought about Hunger Games since then. Except to try and find videos online of her training, or just looking at the film and seeing how they shot archery a little bit.” But like The Hunger Games, the film is also about self-discovery and self-reliance. THE ARCHER finds the perfect balance of action and emotion, throwing Lauren into every situation and allowing her to find her way out. “It really was the marriage of an intense genre action movie with emotions that were just as authentic and intense,” says Weiss, “I hadn’t really seen an action movie that had done that before.”
And archery is so cool on film. It’s the great equalizer — it’s something that both men and women can do equally. That bullseye is there and it doesn’t really matter how strong you are, it’s not age-related. In THE ARCHER, what Lauren has to learn is control. And of course it has a stealth element going for it, like First Blood, or the various Robin Hood films (the best always being the Disney cartoon where he is a fox).
However, one of the best things about Weiss’s film is the coming-of-age love story between Lauren, who is just starting to understand her own sexuality, and fellow prisoner Rebecca. “When you meet your match for the first time, it’s really scary because you have to do something about it,” says the director, “it was a really fun dynamic to have to play for the girls.” Lauren finds Rebecca a bit intimidating because she is the first person who has ever actively pursued her. “They were just wonderful and curious and insatiable about figuring out about these women and their relationship,” she says. It is really rare to see a film that is both essentially an action film, and also full of LGBT issues. “People who have seen it in that community love this movie,” says Weiss, “it’s one of the first times a character is gay and not being antagonized for it. It’s just who she is. It’s not part of our plot at all.”
The harmony these girls find in each other’s company elevates the film from the typical action film with male protagonists, even the more recent ones that are more female-drive. Lauren is completely badass and fierce, but Weiss also lets her be soft and tender and broken. I feel like now we are living in a time— I’m thinking of it as Post-Fury Road— where women are allowed to be tender or they have to be completely non-sexual. And that’s how you show that a woman is strong, by basically removing sexuality. I’ve noticed that in a lot of movies and it’s really bothering me because it’s false. It’s saying that the only way to be strong is to be manly and devoid of sexuality. “One of the things I asked the writer to do was to put in a scene where our character is alone in the changing room when she gets to the jail, and we actually see for the first time her vulnerability,” says the director, “once we added that scene, it really shifted the movie in a way. I think finding those moments where characters get to be naked emotionally really is when you get on board with them in a whole new way.”
THE ARCHER world-premiered at SXSW 2017. It was one of the first films I saw, and ended up being my favorite of the entire festival. Pinning its journey on star-in-the-making Bailey Noble, the film plays within the construct of genre, but instead delivers something far more emotional and uplifting than the typical action film.