It's impossible to quantify what it takes to be a quality director – but damn, you know it when you see it. And you'll see it clear and strong in Paint It Black, a staggeringly impressive feature directing debut for actress Amber Tamblyn.
Adapting Janet Fitch's 2006 novel with her co-screenwriter Ed Dougherty, Tamblyn chooses a hot-button topic for her first behind-the-camera endeavor: suicide. It's a subject that, even when handled daringly – as in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why or in the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen – lays itself open to charges of trivialization or, worse, ponderous moralizing. But the filmmaker tackles the subject head-on, without fear. Her expressionistic technique is disorienting, the opposite of a documentary approach, as her characters dodge and weave around the bruising emotional attacks that death inflicts on the living.
Tamblyn is a natural with actors (watch any episode of Joan of Arcadia and you'll witness her own extraordinary gifts). In Paint It Black, set around the mansions and dives of Los Angeles, she puts us inside the heads of two women who are devastated when the news hits that rich-kid artist Michael (Rhys Wakefield) has blown his brains out in a cheap hotel in the desert. Alia Shawkat is woozy, wild-at-heart perfection as Josie, Michael's girlfriend – a freckled, fucked-up punk princess on the edges of an acting-modeling career that stubbornly refuses to materialize.
The gloriously majestic Janet McTeer takes the role of Meredith, Michael's smothering mom, a world-class pianist who blames Josie for her son's death and anything else she can think of. (Their confrontation at the young man's funeral is not something you'll soon forget.) Michael's dad Cal (the reliably superb Alfred Molina) tries to make peace between these opposing forces of nature. But it's no use. On the surface, they're battling over Michael's journals and art work. But it's his spirit they want to own.
Cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard's camera prowls through the lives of these women with a David Lynch-like itch to find truth in the shadows. And Tamblyn frames Josie and Meredith in punishing close-ups that merge into each other and bore away at the masks they wear until only their pain emerges with clarity. There are times when Paint It Black drifts into art-house posing, even camp. But the film's hallucinatory brilliance is undeniable. Tamblyn digs deep into what makes these warring women realize they may each other's only comfort and salvation – it's savagely, surprisingly moving. And Shawkat and McTeer are dynamite, giving performances of astonishing force and feeling.
Still, it's this newbie filmmaker's passionate commitment that pulls you in. She offers no apologies for being bluntly in your face, or for pushing against the clichés that that soften tragedy with quick-fix psychology. Paint It Black is an open wound that’s more likely to fester than heal. But her raw and riveting film gets you good.