High Art (1998)
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Ally Sheedy, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Sage, Gabriel Mann, Anh Duong, David Thornton, Tammy Grimes, Helen Mendes, Cindra Feuer, Charis Michelson.
1998 101 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, sexual situations, nudity, and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 11, 1998.
Lisa Cholodenko's "High Art," is an intelligent, quiet drama. Its strongest quality, aside from the top-notch central performances, is the perceptive way in which the film, also written by Cholodenko, observes its characters. They are all flawed people, some more troubled than others, but they are not judged. Judging the characters in this picture would be a creative misstep on the filmmakers' parts, because no one, no matter how bad off they are, deserve to be negatively judged if they are involved in some serious problems that they cannot break free of.
Syd (Radha Mitchell), a 24-year-old woman living with her longtime boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann), has recently been awarded an ideal job at the high-profile photography magazine, "Frame." She very much enjoys where her career is headed, but is often not taken very seriously by her managers, who are always giving her petty jobs to do, when she knows she could be doing more important things. One night, while taking a bath, Syd notices a leak coming from the apartment above hers, so when she goes up there to inform them of it, she meets Lucy Beliner (Ally Sheedy), a thin, worn-out, and unhappy woman, who lives with her drug-addicted German girlfriend, Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a pathetic former actress who is usually so out-of-it that she often is in and out of conciousness. Syd quickly strikes up a conversation with Lucy, and discovers that she used to be an acclaimed photographer ten years before. Lucy claims she doesn't want to get back into the profession, but Syd manages to convince the "Frame" editors to do a piece on her work. All the while, Syd begins to grow deep feelings for Lucy, even though she has never previously been attracted to a woman, and Lucy starts a battle with her personal demons.
"High Art," is such an effective motion picture because it is never suger-coated or idealized, but instead an honest and convincing portrait of a handful of unhappy people whose lives are going nowhere, while Syd's luck begins to rise. The film in no way is about lesbianism, but about love, which was a refreshing change of pace from the usual stereotypical portraits of homosexuality. As Lucy and Syd grow closer and closer together, we really do believe that they are falling in love with each other, even if the relationship might be doomed.
With this picture, Ally Sheedy's star has risen once again, thanks to her touching, nearly flawless portrtayal of Lucy, a woman who, in the course of a decade, has found her life consumed almost entirely by drugs, which has taken away her once-blossoming career. Her characted really is tragic, and one particular scene involving Lucy and her mother, in which Lucy admits to her that she has a drug problem, and her mother matter-of-factly responds by saying she can't help her, is heartbreaking. Although not autobiographical, Sheedy has had drug problems in her past, and I suspect she brought that knowledge of already being in Lucy's footsteps to her role. Also very good is Radha Mitchell as Syd, who previously starred in the slight 1997 Australian comedy, "Love and Other Catastrophes," wh caught me by surprise with her performance. Easily being able to pass as Christina Ricci's older sister, Mitchell obtains the same natural charisma that has made Ricci so popular recently.
As accurate as almost every detail is in, "High Art," I wish the relationship had been more tightly written involving Syd and James, who, played by Gabriel Mann, is left with a throwaway role. By the time he finds out about Syd and Lucy, he disappears from the film, and I wish there had been another scene where they confronted each other. This is a very minor fault, however, in a film that is full of riches. Although many of the characters are stuck in a hopeless pit of despair, Syd and Lucy are intelligent people who recognize their problems. The character of Dominique (Anh Duong), the "Frame" editor who decides to give Syd a chance with her ideas, was also written to be far more mature than expected. And the one sex scene in the film was beautifully and originally done. For once, it did not invlove steaminess, or violent sexual activity, or gratuitous nudity, but focused on the actual characters, who love each other, and their insecurities involved in making the decision to actually have sex. "High Art," which won the screenwriting award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, marks the superior feature film debut of Cholodenko, as well as Sheedy's strongest, and best, role to date.
©1998 by Dustin Putman