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First run Theater cinema

M.F.A., directed by Natalia Leite, from an original screenplay by actress Leah McKendrick, puts a contemporary, long-overdue feminist spin on the 1970s exploitation staple, the rape/revenge thriller.  Francesca Eastwood stars as an art student named Noelle who, after getting raped by a classmate she has a crush on, becomes a vigilante on a mission to avenge fellow college girls whose attackers faced no substantial consequences for their violent assaults. 

This picture will certainly draw comparisons to Paul Verhoeven’s much lauded film of the previous year, Elle—for which Isabelle Huppert received accolades for her portrayal of a woman who is savagely raped but who doesn’t consider herself a victim. Both movies subvert audience expectations of the subject matter, and both have outstanding lead performances as their most successful and absorbing feature. But whereas Elle’s elegant surfaces and academic, pseudo-sophisticated pretensions dilute its cinematic power, the hastily produced, cheap looking, and sometimes downright ugly micro-indie M.F.A. comes across as far more honest.

Leite’s previous film Bare (2015) tells the story of a young woman drawn into the dark world of a strip club in Reno.  Likewise M.F.A. deals with girl in extremis.  It does not attempt to be subtle or nuanced about its subject, rape. This is an unapologetic, on-the-nose, exploitation picture, which cleverly utilizes its ignoble genre status and budgetary limitations to its advantage. It’s no coincidence that the titular M.F.A. Noelle is going for is in fine art. Feeling ill-equipped for the task of creating dynamic work in the conventional artistic sense, she finds success and fulfillment when she turns her talents and energy to a far more shocking, definitive, and attention-getting pursuit.

The film’s heart and strength comes from the breakout performance by twenty-three-year-old Francesca Eastwood, the daughter of Clint Eastwood and Frances Fisher. I last saw her on screen playing her father’s little girl in his drama True Crime (1999). The then five-year-old Francesca practically steals that movie in the “speed-zoo” sequence, in which her dad, an alcoholic journalist neglectful of his parental obligations, rushes her through their father-daughter outing so he can meet a deadline. Apparently, Francesca Eastwood has been building a solid career for herself in TV since then, and this performance signals the arrival of a major new star.

She is equally convincing as the shy, insecure student of the first half of M.F.A. as she is when Noelle transforms into an avenging misanthrope.  And together, Eastwood, McKendrick, and Leite stage a rape scene devoid of sensationalism, sugarcoating, or any other kind of cinematic embellishment. The picture’s central event is dispassionately photographed in a single wide-shot that manages to keep the viewer focused on Noelle’s experience despite the camera’s objective perspective. The unadorned choices in staging and shooting make this one of the most powerful depictions of sexual assault I’ve seen in a movie—one I will inevitably recall the next time a college rape story appears in the news with the he-said/she-said dynamic typically found coverage and discussions of this issue.

As with Thelma & Louise (1991), M.F.A. is bound to get a lot of negative press from male critics for encouraging violent retaliation against potentially innocent men. This was an absurd critique in the ‘90s after more than two decades of action movies in which dozens of heroic men from Charles Bronsen, to Franco Nero, to Eastwood’s father—Dirty Harry himself, hunted down the sleazeball rapists of their wives and daughters and blew them away with big guns in the third act. An awareness of this and many other conventions of rape/revenge thrillers helps put a positive spin on this picture’s weakest aspect, the character of an ineffectual detective (Clifton Collins, Jr.) attempting to solve the rash of murders that begins shortly after Noelle’s assault.  Unfortunately, many of the other supporting roles are also underwritten and played by actors with far less screen presence than Collins, Jr. 

M.F.A. is an uneven, occasionally amateurish movie, but it packs a powerful punch that stays with the viewer, making us relive our memories of certain images and key lines of dialogue. It should open many doors to all three of the women at its creative center.

Twitter Capsule:
Capitalizing on its budget limitations, Leite's debut usurps rape/revenge tropes and gives the exploitation genre a sharp feminist spin.

Directed by Natalia Leite
Produced by Mike C. Manning, Leah McKendrick, and Shintaro Shimosawa

Written by Leah McKendrick

With: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Welch, Breeda Wool, Leah McKendrick, Andrew Caldwell, Peter Vack, Bryant Wood, David Sullivan, Adam Lazarre-White, Mike C. Manning, Kelly Walker, and Marlon Young

Cinematography: Aaron Kovalchik
Editing: Phil Bucci
Music: Sonya Belousova

Runtime: 95 min