“What are the words do you do not yet have? What do you have to say? …for it is not difference that immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences that need to be broken.” – Audre Lorde
Patti (Lili Taylor), Angela (Bruklin Harris), Emma (Anna Grace) and Nikki (Aunjanue Ellis) are best friends on the cusp of graduating high school when suddenly, and for seemingly no reason, Nikki commits suicide. Heartbroken and confused the girls seek out a reason for their friend’s death and in the pages of her journal discover that she had been raped. The rest of the film documents each girls’ personal struggle and their cohesive desire for retaliation.
This film is special for many reasons the primary being the honest way it confronts rape and the way it effects each girl individually as well as in the larger cultural narrative. No one person can speak about rape it in a way that is all inclusive but the Girls Town script is fresh, organic and likely to strike a chord with many female viewers (Note: Many of the scenes were improvised earning Taylor, Harris and Grace writing credits in addition to Denise Caruso and Jim McKay). As a director Jim McKay’s understanding of, or at least respect for, the repercussions of this type of violence is communicated by creative and powerful cinematic choices. So often we see sexual attacks on the screen and it is painful, almost unnecessary, to watch. McKay opts to leave out the details of Nikki’s rape but opens his film with a monologue of sorts: The camera follows Nikki as she walks down the street in her neighborhood and instead of words or music we hear the sounds of her struggle during the attack. This poignant foreshadowing immediately connects us to Nikki. More importantly it reflects the deeply psychological effects rape has upon an individual: Is this what she hears in her head? What does she see when she closes her eyes? How can she live with this secret?
The culture of silence around rape is immense, but fragile. Which is why it crumbles so easily once its been pierced. The discovery of Nikki’s rape leads Emma to admit that she was also raped…by her boyfriend. This sets off an intense discussion among the girls about their own relationships with men and the choices and responsibilities their gender holds them accountable for. The reality is stark and aptly summed up by Patti who bluntly responds to Emma’s admission: “What did you expect? They want to have sex with you; you don’t want to have sex with them their going to fuck you anyway. You call that rape and I’ve been raped by pretty much every guy I been with.” It’s a hard truth to hear especially because it reflects a sad reality. So, let me follow it up with another pertinent truth; one that is much less heard in the dominant narrative, by the amazing Jess Valenti: “[Being] responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.”
This conversation between the girls introduces the anger that has lived inside them that this event has now given voice to. In the image of a GenX Foxfire they begin to confront the violence they are subjected to and the people who perpetrate it. As exciting and important as it is to see these girls become active agents in their own lives, it was equally valuable to watch the girls struggle with their anger and how to move through it towards a place of deeper insight. The most interesting reflection of this process is when Patti directly confronts a guy who is verbally harassing her on the street. When she runs into him again he addresses her respectfully, apologizes, and owns his behavior. Relating the story to her friends she is met with resistance and cynicism about his sincerity to which Patti replies, “He listened to me.” Privelege is hard to resist and accountability is, unfortunately, is not a common trait in Americans. However, attending to these issues on screen is reflective of a cultural shift that is necessary for evolution.
As I said, this film is special. For giving voice to a cultural silence, for showing girls being angry and brave and hurt and sad and powerful and finally, for sharing an element of healing imperative to our future.
Cross posted at Love YA Lit.