They say age is just a number. We like to believe that’s so. Greatness can steam from anyone at any time, no matter how young or old. However, we can’t help but admire the confidence, boldness, and sheer exuberance of the young — as our name might suggest. Those willing to push past any doubts, fears, pressures or boundaries to create the art they feel fit to make during their short time on this planet. And if it’s done well, then they deserve all the more recognition and acclaim. Not only did they live out their dreams faster than their peers, but they did it right! They’re already proven talents! They proudly showcased the next generation of excellence. They’ve broken through.
At 20, Quinn Shephard wrote, directed, produced, edited and frontlined her first film, Blame. When I was 20, I finally got my driver’s license. Shephard already fought against the odds to make the movie she wanted to make. To know that it’s a startling, revealing, intelligent and highly compelling look at high school insecurities and individuality reveals that Shephard isn’t merely confident; she’s accomplished well beyond her years. Much like Emily Hagins and Xavier Dolan before her, Shephard is an astonishingly dexterous young adult, one willing to establish herself in every known capacity. It’s thrilling to watch her blooming radiance resonate on the screen. To see her tackle such a risky, provocative film as her first feature firmly and vigorously establishes Shephard as a truly gifted, intuitive revelation, one ready to ignite the screen for decades on end.
Blame isn’t merely one of the best directorial debuts of the new year; it’s one of the most intriguing and invigorating proofs of talent seen in quite some time. Blame would be a tremendous first attempt at filmmaking for any filmmaker. To know the director’s age is to witness one of the most dynamic, richly promising young filmmakers of our time.
The story follows two very different teenagers, Abigail (Shephard) and Melissa (Nadia Alexander). Abigail is isolated and introverted, returning to high school following a breakdown of some variety in her psychology class the previous year. Melissa is brash, bullying and outspoken, a vain, self-absorbed cheerleader known for wearing short skirts and trying desperately to earn the admiration and validation of others. One has a small collection of glass animals. The other writes demeaning statements with lipstick on lockers and bathroom walls. They’re complete opposites, yet they both foster the attention of their substitute English teacher, Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina), an undermotivated would-be actor who quickly fancies Abigail for her natural acting chops and her incredible dedication and commitment to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which is the acclaimed play they’re studying and later performing for the semester.
As Abigail and Jeremy spend more time together, Melissa and her friends try to break Abigail, whom they nickname “Sybil,” in a petty attempt to create another breakdown. But through Miller’s text, Abigail grows more confident and assured, and that quickly (and quite inappropriately) attracts Jeremy. But, of course, the feelings are ultimately mutual, which annoys Melissa to no end. In her never-ending attempt to seek attention, Melissa begins to alienate herself from her friends, who see right through her jealousy. And through her loaded rage, Melissa’s “mean girl” tendencies take some sinister turns.
Most high school movies tend to feel out of step with reality. They’re either completely overdramatized or they fail to capture the nuances of such a difficult, pubescent time. Thankfully, Blame doesn’t fall into either trapping. Shephard captures a wonderful sensitivity to her sensuality that avoids those pitfalls in touching and meaningful ways, creating a coming-of-age film that’s truly sincere. Her direction is poised and well in touch with her grounded sensibilities. Even the more salacious sequences are quietly tender and caring in a way that never makes the material overly taboo or troublesome. There’s a gentle humanity to this freshman movie that makes it feel genuine where many other high school movies fail to muster up any reliability. Blame has a beating pulse that’s deeply ingrained in its emotions, and it knows how to channel and convey these turbulent times with heart and conviction. In short, Blame truly gets high school.
In fact, it’s downright shocking how well Shephard gets the high school experience right, and that comes thanks to her ability to stay connected with her inner teenager, while still being mature enough —often well beyond her years —to recognize the raw, intimate shortcomings of these youthful protagonists. It’s a startlingly honest, deeply effective balance to achieve, even during some of the bumpier, uneasy story elements that arise during the second half of the film, and one that might perhaps only be found in a rising director that’s still this young and deeply in sync with her high school years.
It’s an insightful, understanding film that’s benefitted undoubtedly by the grace, prowess, burning passion and guiding inner wisdom of Shephard’s already-developed vision. It’s also tremendous and needed validation that we need more female directors pushing the narratives we sadly don’t often get to see. Through her inclusive, intuitive film, Shephard, now 22, provided us with one of the most mesmerizing debuts in ages — and one that’s not easy to forget. But of course, Blame isn’t merely her film. Thanks to commanding, deeply powerful supporting turns from Alexander and Messina, Blame earns its layered, captivating exceptionalism. They help mold Shephard’s rising talent and give it further validation that she’s truly a new filmmaker with a sharp, keen eye.
As to be expected, here are flaws to be found throughout Blame. Truth be told, unless you’re Citizen Kane, you’re not likely to get everything right the first time. Should I mention that Orson Welles was 25 when he made that movie? There’s no sense pointing out the film’s shortcomings because, ultimately, they’re small and mostly insignificant in the scheme of things. Quinn Shephard’s Blame is such a tremendously accomplished triumph that the important thing worth recognizing is what a great achievement it is that it was made — and made so well too. Shephard has a long, promising career in her future and we can’t wait to see what it holds.