‘Josie’ Is No Pussycat

by Warren Cantrell on March 15, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

There’s a lot to admire in Josie, the newest film by suspense auteur Eric England. This is quite the accomplishment, too, because on the face of it, there’s not a lot of meat on the bone, narrative-wise for this picture. The movie tracks a couple of weeks in a small town invaded by a young, beautiful, mysterious woman, and the havoc that follows. Interesting character work and deliberate acting and directing decisions abound in Josie, however, and elevate it beyond the somewhat gotcha-esque hinge that the film’s third act swings upon.

England’s movie might be called Josie, but its center is Hank (Dylan McDermott), a hermit school monitor and sometime-fisherman. Hank lives in a motel apartment complex, and when he isn’t on the clock at the local high school, watching for ditchers, he’s on his small boat, or tending to his tortoises. Although he maintains a cordial relationship with his neighbors and the motel’s maintenance man, it is clear that Hank is taking deliberate steps to limit his social contacts.

This changes with the arrival of Josie (Sophie Turner), who moves into the unit across the parking lot from Hank. New to town, and without any parents in tow, Josie sets up shop and begins integrating herself into the community without so much as a hitch in her step. She’s able to get the reluctant Hank to help her move in, and has the high school boys falling all over themselves to meet her within minutes of sitting down in her first class. Bold but not especially flirtatious, and provocative without any clearly defined agenda, Sophie comes to Hank, her high school, the motel complex, and the audience as something of a moving bullseye.

From here, the infatuation with Josie builds from pretty much all sides. Hank seems energized by Josie’s presence, as does Josie’s classmate, Marcus (Jack Kilmer). Hank’s neighbors, the older, married, wizened Gordie and Martha (Kurt Fuller and Robin Bartlett) grow increasingly concerned with Hank’s growing obsession with Josie, the young woman who seems to be drifting obliviously through all of it. Yet there’s enough of a glimmer flashing behind Josie’s eyes to clue the audience into the suspicion that there’s more going on here than Josie is letting on. All of this intrigue and drama acts as the kindling to the slow burn mystery leading to the picture’s ultimate payoff.

At every turn, the directing choices by England stand out as not just a component of the story, but an integral part of it. The central thrust of the narrative follows Hank and his growing infatuation with Josie, which has obvious parallels to Nabokov, but also the visual cues Kubrick brought to the Lolita mythos. Early on, England offers up a shot of Turner lounging by the pool: her rounded sunglasses reflecting the sun in what can only be viewed as a deliberate call-back to Kubrick’s 1962 film. But this is just a tease, an implanted fragrance meant to remind the viewer where they are, yet not necessarily where they are going. Although what she’s up to isn’t clear at first, it is obvious that Josie has agency from the get-go, and is the hunter rather than the hunted.

The choices in wardrobe are also telling. Josie’s clothes aren’t just revealing as a way to play up her heightened sexuality, but as a window into her personality. Mesh tops, short shorts, and sleeveless shirts hint at an exposed, unrestricted, and unencumbered character who is baring herself to the world. Internally, Josie might be all obfuscation, yet she’s making a choice to hide in plain sight, like the crimson petal of a Venus Fly Trap offering an inviting respite at a deadly price. This stands in stark contrast to Hank, whose t-shirts, jeans, and flannel all convey the presence of a person trying to blend in and hide. Indeed, the fact that Hank’s closest and most intimate connections at the start of the film are tortoises hardly seems a coincidence. This is a man who would retreat inside of his shell if he had one.

It seems inevitable, then, that there will be conflict between these deliberately defined and diametrically opposed forces. As the orbits of Hank, Josie, and Marcus rotate closer and closer to each other, England manages to keep the intensity of the story dialed up and in lock-step with the character reveals to follow. As a film, Josie might be playing in the shadow of Lolita, but as it develops, there’s an almost Coen-esque Blood Simple feel to it. There’s a considerable build to get there, yet at just under an hour and a half long, it is hardly a slog to the payoff.

Turner does great work against type as a wise-beyond-her-years vixen, playing up her flirtatious and sexual side in a way that her Game of Thrones and X-Men performances haven’t allowed. McDermott puts in decent work as well, and sells his character, yet there’s something of a barrier around the role. This is a component of the Hank persona itself (he’s written as very guarded), who is hard to sympathize with considering his infatuation with a high school girl, but also due to the baggage McDermott brings as an endlessly charming, likable character actor with roughly thirty years of on-screen familiarity.

In all, though, Josie is an interesting, well-acted, superbly directed film with a solid narrative foundation and a really good trick up its sleeve. Opening tomorrow at the Screenland at Tapcade, the movie should come as a pleasant surprise to any fans of Turner, who haven’t gotten a chance to see the actress flex femme fatale muscles like this in the past. Josie is more than that, though, and is a quick, sorta twisted ride that all the dragons and Wolverines in the world can’t compete with.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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