Coming of age again and again in 'Knives and Skin'

Joel Oliphint
A still from "Knives and Skin"

Filmmaker Jennifer Reeder grew up in Clintonville, and in her high school and college years she worked at her neighborhood movie theater, the long-gone Drexel North.

“We were the grungy one,” Reeder said recently by phone from Chicago, the city she has called home since leaving Columbus to pursue a graduate degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late '90s. “We showed ‘Heathers’ and ‘Sid & Nancy’ and all that kind of stuff.”

Some of Reeder’s formative experiences took place around Ohio State’s campus, which looked and felt much different from the corporatized, Campus Partners version of High Street today.

“Me and my friends would hang out at the record stores on campus, and there were some all-ages clubs where you could go see bands play. There was something about campus that was really appealing to my goth-punk high school self,” she said. "[In college], to go and have lunch at Bernie’s Bagels and then go watch a band play in that tiny, shitty basement, that kind of epitomized who I was. I was this college art student, and to have [Bernie's] at the head of 15th Avenue, which is still sorority-fraternity row — those two things crashing into each other was always really meaningful.”

Reeder was introduced to the movies of groundbreaking filmmaker David Lynch in a now-defunct “super gross movie theater” at Lane Avenue and High Street on campus. “That's where I saw ‘Blue Velvet,’” she said. “It was extraordinary, and I would argue that film totally holds up. Now there's a term — elevated genre — for films that have a really intense, deep commitment to story but also feel like a horror film. … ‘Blue Velvet’ stuck out in a super-meaningful way, and I think from then on, Lynch was a huge influence.”

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That influence is readily apparent in Reeder’s first feature-length film, “Knives and Skin,” which screens at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, and Saturday, Sept. 14, at the Wexner Center (Reeder will also attend a 6 p.m. reception before the Friday screening). The surrealistic, beautifully shot coming-of-age film takes place in a Midwestern town where a high school girl goes missing. Reeder pays close attention to the onscreen color palette while following a group of teens and adults as they deal with the emotional fallout of the disappearance, and in Lynchian fashion, the characters often remain intensely stoic as they roil internally.

Initially, Reeder said, the actors’ instincts were to lean into the melodrama of the situations, but she directed them otherwise. “I was like, ‘No, no. The only way that this is actually gonna work is if we take that aspect out of this.’ Every character is so preoccupied with their own internal melodrama that they can't be bothered with going too far into what is happening in their external world,” she said. “Honestly, the most emotionally intense real-life situations I have been in, no one fell to the ground sobbing, you know? No one was screaming. The reality is, someone walks into the house at the end of the day and says, ‘I think we should separate.’ Or someone calls and says someone died, and you're like, ‘What? Huh? How?’

“The way that we as humans in real life react to trauma or cope with trauma is very particular and it's very personal. The way that we grieve is extremely idiosyncratic. I think that some of us have learned too much about how to consume someone else's emotions through how we've seen some of that stuff play out on TV and film.”

Nearly all the characters in “Knives and Skin” deal with trauma poorly, adults included. “I wanted to make a film that was about the second or third coming of age, suggesting that coming of age is really a lifelong process. We don't allow adults to come of age multiple times in a really graceful way. We have terms like ‘midlife crisis,’ which just exasperates everything,” Reeder said. “It's just unfair that we expect humans to come of age when you're still basically a child. We should just collectively decide that you are actually not allowed to come of age until you're, like, 38.”

Music is also an essential part of the film, so much so that it could almost qualify as a musical. The moody synth soundtrack comes courtesy of Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but certain songs also play a central role in “Knives and Skin.” At different points, multiple characters in the film sing slowed-down versions of '80s pop songs such as “I Melt with You” by Modern English and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” It’s an homage to the golden age of teen films, but it’s more than that, too.

“The first song that the girls sing in choir class is ‘Our Lips are Sealed,’ which is this super-infectious pop song from the Go-Go’s. But slowed down as a kind of lullaby or a lamentation, it's a call to action for young female empowerment,” Reeder said. “It’s a call to solidarity but it's also saying, ‘We have no choice. No one is here to protect us but ourselves.’ And that has a lot to do with what the film is about, too. There's this constant violation of consent. So I think in slowing [the song] down the way that I did, I hope it also says that girl power is survival. It's solidarity as survival because there's no one else to protect us but each other, and the realization of that has some weight to it.”

In the past week, Reeder has screened “Knives and Skin” at two film festivals in France, but bringing her work back to the hometown where her love of cinema took root makes this Wexner Center event particularly meaningful. In fact, Wex projectionist Bruce Bartoo was once Reeder’s boss at the Drexel North.

“Even though I’ve been in Chicago for over 20 years, I write films that, in my brain, take place in Central Ohio,” she said. “That's where my internal landscape is when I'm building a world and building the characters in that world.”

Wexner Center for the Arts

Reception 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13

Screening 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13 and Saturday, Sept. 14

1871 N. High St., Campus

“Knives and Skin”