Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) has not had an easy time in life. When we first meet her, she’s breaking into a large home that isn’t hers to stock up on a few necessities but stops to treat herself to a new set of sparkly shoes and a glittery dress. She meets up with a partner-in-crime (of sorts) to divvy up the goods, then heads home to an ailing father struggling to make rent. They celebrate Jonny’s victory with a pizza, but the question remains: what will become of her when she’s 18?
Before storming off into the night with the nice dress and a few personal items from her room, Jonny is sent to live with an eccentric aunt, Hildie (Alicia Silverstone), in a place known for its spike in missing young girls. Safe in Hildie’s home, Jonny learns more about herself and the “Forevering,” a rite of passage that gives her mystical powers that allow her to empathize with others and figure out what’s happened to the town’s missing girls. Now enrolled in a nightmarish prep school with the weirdly enthusiastic but misogynist Principal Burke (Christopher Lowell) and a shady popular boyfriend to all of the missing girls, Jonny and her friends set out to reveal the town’s ugly secret and catch the perpetrator.
Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder (“Knives and Skin”), “Perpetrator” juggles a lot of ideas, grotesque imagery, and side stories—some of which come together and complement one another, while some clash and distract from the other plot points. It’s a strange lumbering beast of a script, and while never boring, it never moves smoothly. The dress from the beginning is never seen again. Other random elements come and go, like why the school practices “massacre drills,” a ramped-up version of active shooter drills now taking place at schools. It’s a clever idea that only mildly pays off in the end. Certain things are never fully explained, like why Hildie punishes Jonny’s high school stealing by making her eat one of the objects (lipstick, a nice colorful choice). The concept of “Forevering” never really feels like it gets a real explanation, as the powers can be different from person to person, like an X-Men, but instead of the genetic mutation thing, it’s a matrilineal gift some girls get on their 18th birthday. Hildie somehow jumpstarts the process by making Jonny eat a slice of a blood-filled cake.
Despite the knotty narrative, Reeder and cinematographer Sevdije Kastrati clearly had great fun playing with the various deranged elements of Jonny’s quest. Reeder imagines Jonny wayward life, the gothic interiors yet normal facade of Hildie’s home, the strange prep school from hell, and later, a true underground of horrors and a blood-borne escape room unlocked by Jonny’s Forevering. One of the more striking shots, and perhaps the image most circulated from the film, arrives when Jonny’s Forevering turns her feral, unleashing a bloody-mouthed, sharp-toothed maniacal grin on the character’s face. Through Reeder’s camera, she shatters the view into a kaleidoscopic frenzy, heightening the sense of crazed emotions and power washing over Jonny.
Speaking of having fun, Silverstone and McKirnan give this movie their all, with Silverstone mixing a perfect blend of scary mystery and whimsical energy and Jonny bringing a defiant and headstrong performance to her role. Their scenes together are some of the movie’s most delicious moments. Like a teenager fighting any authority figure, there’s a power struggle between them, and the heated intensity seems to grow with Hildie’s inexplicable oddities and Jonny’s mounting frustration. However, the movie doesn’t find a definite resolution for their dynamic; it just skips over into better days.
“Perpetrator” is about many issues girls and women face, from the fear of losing one’s identity to the obsession of looking young and how that affects the next generation. It’s about coming into your power and using it to help others. And it’s about not accepting girls and women as victims and fighting against sexism in all its nefarious forms. It’s not always clear what the movie is trying to say, but even its misfires are more interesting than most because of what Reeder and her stars bring to their characters.
On Shudder now.