If you were to convene all of the miserable characters from Alex Ross Perry’s various ensemble casts under one roof, it would make for a pretty brutal evening. Perry, whose features include Golden Exits and Listen Up Philip, often zeroes in on elite Manhattan milieus defined by neuroticism, egotism and chronic bourgeois malaise. In this way, his work follows in the footsteps of writer-directors like Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach and Nicole Holofcener—our national chroniclers of white upper-class liberal frailty and (occasional) charm.
While Her Smell, which had its US premiere at New York Film Festival on Saturday, has a whiff of Perry’s usual sensibility, the ferocious film also marks a bit of a departure for the indie Brooklynite. With this one, Perry turns his shrewd lens away from genteel New York and toward a more punk rock scene: the off-kilter world of truculent riot grrrl Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), the frontwoman for a popular band called Something She. Rounding out the trio are the chill bassist Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and the sensible drummer Ali (GLOW’s Gayle Rankin), though with a bandmate like Becky, they mostly find themselves serving by turns as caretaker and punching bag.
The film unfolds in a series of kinetic, real-time sequences as the camera trails Becky and her various cohorts around grungy hallways and dim rooms, mostly backstage at a club called Her Smell in the hours leading up to shows. Much of the time, the camera feels as keyed up as the loose cannon it strives to surveil, generating an anxious atmosphere that echoes and magnifies Becky’s erratic moods. She often travels surrounded by hovering superintendents: her bandmates, her manager Howard (Eric Stoltz); or Danny (Dan Stevens), her exasperated ex and the father of her baby daughter; not to mention her pop nemesis Zelda (Amber Heard) and the kooky spiritual charlatan (Eka Darville) slavishly following her every move.
Though we rarely see Becky drinking or doing drugs (she’s usually already inebriated), we learn that recent years have seen her spiral into a terrible addiction that’s left her unhinged, unreliable, and unable to make music or sufficiently care for her child. As a deranged musician, Becky begs comparison to famously fragile female rockers like Courtney Love or Amy Winehouse, but she is also something completely her own. She has appealing traits: cleverness with words, charisma, brilliance as a performer. But she is also relentlessly aggravating and clearly unwell. Her capacity to both depend on and manipulate those in her orbit—compelling their support; exploiting their sympathy; driving them away—is like its own form of morbid performance, one that is simultaneously sickening and impressive.
Yet even as we develop a fascination with Becky, struggling to sympathize and understand her, the film never gets too tangled in her manic subjectivity. Often, Perry aligns us instead with outlying characters, the ones forced to observe Becky’s antics from the sidelines. And as with Perry’s previous ensemble casts, the relationships among even these peripheral characters are deftly fleshed out with backstories and detail, making the world of the film feel even more lifelike and complete.
One especially thrilling (and effectively aggravating) sequence finds Becky meeting a new band signed to Howard’s label. The Akergirls (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula) are like a fresh iteration of Something She; they’re younger, poppier, and, most saliently, far more stable. In a lengthy recording studio scene, Becky makes a show of supporting the new band, showering them in compliments and resolving to serve as their mentor. In this moment, Becky’s overcompensated insecurity and fear of replacement are palpable, and we know that a full mental breakdown isn’t far away.
But after the intoxicating breakdown (in a climax that rivals Gaspar Noe’s) has come and gone, something incredible happens. The movie—and Becky—slow down to the steady pace of sobriety. The camera ceases motion, and long, winding takes around labyrinthine halls are traded for long, static takes within a remote house. It is here that the film’s most memorable and affecting musical performance occurs, depicted in full via an uncut take: Becky singing a solo rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” to her daughter, accompanied only by her own piano. Next to the hardcore punk shows at Her Smell, the ballad feels divinely sane.
Periodic flashback segments, presented as home video snippets from when Something She was just making it big, provide regular reminders of a happier time. Becky’s mother (Virginia Madsen), who floats in and out of these flashback pictures, appears toward the end of the film in force to see Becky through; her presence alongside Becky’s daughter gestures at the special ways in which maternal love can be passed down and buoyed between generations of women.
These mother-daughter ties and the abiding love among Something She—along with the pronouns in the band’s name and film’s title—suggest that the film strikes a uniquely female note. While the movie might seem powered by one woman’s frenzy, it benefits from a robust engine of female loyalty that strains but never gives out. Formally audacious and ferociously intelligent, Her Smell is Perry’s greatest achievement yet, a wild saga of prestige and madness that is ultimately rooted in the female bonds keeping women sane.
Becky is, in a way, a classic woman-on-the-edge, a fiery cautionary tale against the ill effects of unfettered fame. But she is ultimately a beacon of redemption, an embodiment of how strong bonds can encourage recovery and change. Alone she is just Becky Something, a woman as angry at the world as she is afraid of it. Fortified by the women surrounding her, Becky can be something more, something she always wanted to be: a star.