“Her Smell” is an excruciating and compelling look at the downward spiral of troubled rock star, Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss). As the lead singer in the (fictional) all-female alt-rock band, Something She, Becky may have hit records to her name, but she alienates everyone around her with her outrageous and bad behavior.
Becky is intense and deliberately unlikable.
She taunts her long suffering bandmates — drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin), and lesbian guitarist, Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) — as well as her producer/manager Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz), ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens) and mom Ania (Virginia Madsen). The film, which clocks in at 135 minutes, becomes an endurance test for everyone. But as Becky says, “It’s the Highway or Her Way.”
Writer/director (and Bryn Mawr native) Alex Ross Perry immerses viewers in Becky’s world. It is a five-act story, and each episode plays like one of the stages of grief — denial, anger, depression, and bargaining before Becky reaches acceptance. Viewers not completely put off by “Her Smell,” may experience a kind of Stockholm syndrome as the film unfolds.
The film’s riveting first sequence unfolds backstage after a tour-ending performance. Becky tries to bond with her infant child, conduct a spiritual cleansing with her shaman, Ya-ema (Eka Darville), and reject an offer to open for singer Zelda E. Zekiel (queer actress Amber Heard). Perry’s handheld camera relentlessly captures this chaos and Becky’s mercurial, erratic responses to it. Audiences, like Becky’s peers and members of her entourage, will be rubbernecking as her mania snowballs. Watching Becky self-destruct and inflict pain on others is not easy or fun, especially in Act III, when she arrives — with a film crew, no less — strung out, and late for a concert. (Songs by Alicia Bognanno and Philly-based Anika Pyle).
Throughout “Her Smell,” whether backstage or in the studio, Becky never stops performing as Moss throws herself into the character with reckless abandon. Becky gives mini-speeches as if she were a Shakespearean queen. When she arrives on stage with blood on her face, she is too preoccupied to notice or care. It’s a go-for-broke performance and Moss delivers.
In Act IV, Becky is broke and broken. Having given into her demons, she tries to re-establish a sense of peace and bond with her young daughter. A tender scene of her performing Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” is poignant and moving — even more so because Perry’s restless camera stays still in this moment. But “Her Smell” doesn’t stay steady for long. Perry has Becky in comeback mode in Act V, making this character study about redemption and reinvention end on an intriguing note.
The film may be stagy and low-budget, but Perry creates a palpable, claustrophobic atmosphere of the dressing rooms and studio space that infects the characters and causes them to combust. “Her Smell” shows how the jaded and bitter Becky handles her demons and insecurities.
In Act II, having pissed off her bandmates, Marielle and Ali, she connects with a young trio of musicians, Crassie Cassie (genderfluid performer Cara Delevingne), Roxie Rotten (Ashley Benson) and Dottie O.Z. (Dylan Gelula), known as The Akergirls. Of course, Becky sees something of herself in their wonder and naivete and hopes to recapture that sensation.
Perry’s film emphasizes the madness not the music, which can be frustrating, but “Her Smell” seems designed — even from its title — to exasperate.
Alex Ross Perry will participate in a talkback with Anika Pyle after the 6:30 p.m. show April 27 at the PFS Roxy Theater.