Premise: A self-destructive punk rocker struggles with sobriety while trying to recapture the creative inspiration that led her band to success.
“Her Smell”, the latest from writer-director Alex Ross Perry, is a fascinating character study of a washed up lead singer struggling with addiction and the path of destruction she leaves in her wake. That singer is Becky Something, and she’s played by Elizabeth Moss with a frantic energy for almost all of the first half of the film. Moss has become a reliably great dramatic actress since her “Mad Men” days, where she began as a quietly confident presence. In “Her Smell”, the confidence gets cranked up to eleven (yes, that reference was mandatory). It’s clear very early on that Becky is battling many demons – there’s even a hilarious running joke concerning her backstage shaman – and has become a toxic presence to almost everyone around her. They include her bandmates (Gayle Rankin and Agyness Deyn), ex-husband Dan (Dan Stevens), and her weary manager (Eric Stoltz). How much enjoyment you get out of this film will largely depend on how much you can tolerate Moss’s chaotic liveliness. Just trying to keep up with her mood swings is a little exhausting, even as a passive viewer. Becky’s crew has learned to live with and tolerate her eccentricities; we learn at one point that she is the focus of several lawsuits, almost all because of her destructive behavior.
Alex Ross Perry’s stylistic choices make “Her Smell” stand out from the crowded “troubled artist” genre. First, the film frames Becky’s journey through a series of long, distinct vignettes. There are truly only five scenes, including the opening scene at the aforementioned concert, and then shifting to a recording studio as the band tries to record a new album. The jarring length of these scenes effectively forces you to take in everything that Becky has become and what she means to everyone around her. In-between each vignette is a brief home video-style clip that shows the band before the downward spiral. One shows their glee at receiving their first gold record, another shows Becky’s mother (Virginia Madsen) gushing at her daughter’s success. The latter precedes the scene where Becky truly hits rock bottom, and the contrast in her attitude is devastating. At one point a band member asks “Is she going to be ok?” Her mother’s simple but heartbreaking response “no, she’s not” tells you everything you need to know. The fantastic score by Keegan DeWitt also helps to highlight the tension, especially in those backstage scenes. Just when Becky pot is about to boil over, the music gets more and more unnerving and anxious. Whereas many other films would play some sad ballad over scenes of Becky yelling at onlookers, DeWitt’s plucky strings and synths effectively do the trick.
I don’t expect everyone that views this film to love it, especially when you intentionally have a main character as frustrating as Becky. The latter half deals with her redemption arc, but is it too late to root for her comeback by then, after all we’ve seen? I suspect that anyone that has dealt with someone they love that has struggled with addiction will be much more sympathetic to her recovery. Elizabeth Moss is such a solid performer that I found myself still on her side and wanting her to pull through, at the very least for the sake of her daughter. By the time the film ends, it’s not entirely clear whether Becky has pulled through the darkness or not, but I suppose that was Alex Ross Perry’s point: addiction isn’t a race to the finish line, but a continuing process that never truly has an end point.
ONE LAST THING: I loved the end credits displaying the (fake) band’s former album covers, including the covers from Dan’s own career and her rival Zelda (Amber Heard). The attention to detail within those covers was fantastic.