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  • Rough Cut Staff

SXSW Review: Make Up

Protagonist Pictures

For much of Make Up, there’s something slightly amiss. Something just a bit off. Director Claire Oakley draws you in and then lets you stir, uncomfortable, while she patiently unspools the eerie, trance-like journey of Ruth (Molly Windsor), an 18-year-old visiting her long-distance boyfriend in an insular mobile-home community overlooking the sea. It’s a stellar use of film as forced empathy; the audience may as well be Ruth when, late in the film, she tells her boyfriend, Tom, that she’s “been feelin’ a bit strange.”  For all its eccentricity, Make Up relies mostly on a penetrating realism in its depiction of Ruth, Tom (Joseph Quinn), and their teenage comrades working and living under the watchful eye of Shirley, the apparent landlord-employer-mother figure who owns the “vans” they call home. Oakley and cinematographer Nick Cooke capture the landscape and its inhabitants in all their drab glory, eschewing luminous shots of the sea for muted colors that reflect the monotonous doldrums of the working-class crew. It’s a milieu that calls to mind the work of Tom Harper and George Steel in 2019’s Wild Rose. Often referred to as regional filmmaking, it’s this specificity and honesty that resonates at a universal level. Windsor carries the burden in Make Up, in multiple ways. As an actress, the recent BAFTA-winner for television (Three Girls) gives what should be a breakthrough film performance. From the weightless elation of finally spending time with a long-distance partner to the slowly building discomfort, self-doubt, and confusion, Windsor is a conduit for the film’s tension. She’s on-screen for nearly all of the film, and masterfully uses her body language to mirror the sense of unease she feels in this parochial community.  Or is it the reverse? Make Up transcends the pleasures of a well-styled mood-piece in the way it uses genre tropes to subvert expectations and externalize the internal. Oakley builds a sense of unease, and by creating a world where something is just a little bit off (Shirley’s vacuous laugh; the creepiness of Tom’s friend, Kyle; the inhuman shrieks of foxes emanating across the coast at night), she brilliantly projects Ruth’s uncertainties and identity crises onto the audience. Oakley makes us feel the same anxiety Ruth does, but we don’t realize it until the film is over. As Ruth loses and rediscovers her confidence, Oakley relies on visual flairs to trace her emotional journey. She highlights Ruth’s initial obsession with Tom’s might-be mistress using fragmented flashbacks, increasing their frequency and duration as the outsider spends less time with her boyfriend and more with a young woman and somewhat local outcast, Jade (Stefanie Martini). And perhaps most brilliantly, she track’s Ruth’s self-discoveries with an evolving color palette in particular relying on red splotches(hair and nails, to start, but later on the lights and fireworks that reflect everything around her) against the otherwise bleak, washed-out grays and blues.  Make Up is in no rush to reveal its secrets, but Oakley’s filmmaking is so confident that what may be a slow film is certainly never a boring one. She has an unparalleled sense of time and place – and particularly of class and place and she’s perfectly comfortable living naturally in the space. It’s an assured debut feature and a singular entry into the canon of identity exploration.


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