March 3rd, 2021
STARRING: FRANCESCA EASTWOOD, LEAH MCKENDRICK, PETER VACK, CLIFTON COLLINS JR.
DIRECTED BY: NATALIA LEITE
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
M.F.A. stands for Master of Fine Arts and it is the title of Natalia Leite’s 2017 movie, but this is not a course on how to use watercolors, mold clay, or express oneself on a canvas. This is about the traumatic experience of rape, how it can ruin a passionate artist, alter the course of someone’s life, and the conflicting decision of taking the law into your own hands. That concept of taking the law into your own hands is not new in the history of cinema, in fact it used to be a staple for tough guy narratives, such as Death Wish, Commando, or Shaft, where the hero was always serving cold revenge. In the past five years, however, we’ve finally seen an uptick in revenge films for women, striking with the times of #MeToo, the eye-opening documentary The Hunting Ground, and in light of Harvey Weinstein’s predatory acts. The reckoning was upon us and deservingly so, but M.F.A. was ahead of all that; As a bold statement from an independent film, with a collection of a talented cast and crew, vehemently ready to wake audiences up. And what better actor to portray the vengeful heroine other than the daughter of “Dirty” Harry Callahan, Francesca Eastwood? M.F.A. is not just a statement, but a rally cry for survivors, dropping the hammer on the audience with incredible force. The revenge genre has made a comeback and M.F.A. is the match that lit the fire.
This is the story of Noelle (Eastwood), who we meet in her art class painting a nude model, timid and shy, but clearly dipping her toes into her college life. Her roommate is Skye (Leah McKendrick), a bubbly friend, keeping a smile on her face, and trying to help Noelle break out of her shell. When her classmate Luke (PVT Chat’s Peter Vack) invites her to a frat party, she takes up Skye’s advice to let loose and accepts, but it would lead to the worst night of her life. Noelle is brutally raped by Luke, leaving her traumatized, unsure of where to go next. When she confronts Luke he denies it, claiming she “wanted it”, and this sets Noelle off. She throws Luke over the stairs killing him and when sees the impact her assailant’s death has on her, Noelle disposes of more rapists that were walking free on campus. She is the heroic shadow in the night, bringing justice for women, when society has let them down repeatedly.
What conjured up my interest to revisit M.F.A. was the recent success of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. Both films are unique in their own styles and similar in narrative. They would make for the perfect double bill. Only, M.F.A. is more of a hammer, where Promising Young Woman is the nail, drilling into the hand of the rapists. Director Natalia Leite does an excellent job of letting McKendrick’s script do the heavy lifting. It’s a script that creates tangible, familiar characters, telling the narrative with a hard edged sword, keeping the camera pointed at our subjects, and seeing the brutal act of rape happen. This is a way of engaging the audience to completely grasp this kind of trauma. The trauma is also heavy on the other side, where each scene of Noelle’s revenge is violent, pressing like a ton of bricks on her chest, and constantly knotting our stomachs up. M.F.A. doesn’t have a single false moment, painting living breathing people, and contemplating the conflict of revenge.
The star through it all is Francesca Eastwood. She’s an incredibly unique talent, perfectly chosen for the role of Noelle, and delivering a performance that mixes the cold pain with her flaming emotions. When Noelle seduces her victim to a room, it’s not a dance of desire, but a carrot dangled in front of a predator. The shifts from the traumatized victim, to someone standing up for themselves, sparking a stroke of artistic inspiration, and back to the afraid person inside is all Eastwood’s excellent work. When Clifton Collins’ inspector Kennedy is introduced on the case, it’s not a plot device, as much as he’s the symbol of powerless justice, wanting to help, but doing nothing to stop us from getting to this point. With each person killed, Francesca’s role becomes a bit more at ease, and yet Noelle’s acts are not the answers for her, her friend Skye, or any other victim that has been destroyed by a monster willing to steal a piece of them.
M.F.A. was ahead of it all. Soon after we see films such as Promising Young Woman, I Care a Lot, Lucky, Revenge, and The Nightingale telling stories that should have been told ages ago. Thelma and Louise will forever be the gold standard of cinema where women reclaim their power, but it’s the movie that walked so films like M.F.A. could run. Natalia Leite’s thriller only gets better with each viewing, with a sharp groundbreaking script by McKendrick, and Francesca Eastwood walking in her father’s footsteps. M.F.A. is a master of fantastic cinema.
M.F.A. IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE NOW ON PRIME VIDEO
3 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady