A film too busy trying to be clever to realize how dumb it truly is.
February (TIFF Review)
Osgood Perkins’ directorial debut February is the kind of film that’s hard to pin down at first. Primarily taking place at an all-girls’ prep school, it starts off as a sort of teen drama dealing with student drama and a possible pregnancy. At the same time, a second narrative introduces an element of mystery in how it connects to the main storyline at the school. The one thing Perkins seems painfully and obnoxiously intent on is establishing that something sinister is lurking underneath his film’s underexposed surface, with a strand of supernatural horror pulsing just below every scene. Perkins deliberately designs his film to keep the truth hidden, but as each layer peels back it becomes apparent that February is a very, very dumb movie. And it’s all the more insulting because Perkins clearly thinks he’s being clever with his vague dialogue, grating sound design and playfulness with form. There’s nothing wrong with a stupid film, but there is a problem when a stupid film acts like it’s the smartest one in the room.
Split into three sections, each centered around one of the film’s three female protagonists (a choice that’s entirely superfluous, given that each part frequently switches between POVs). The main plot of February focuses on prep school students Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Kat (Kiernan Shipka). It’s winter break at their school, but neither of their parents have shown up. For Rose, it’s not a surprise; she purposely lied about the pick up date to her parents so she could deal with her boyfriend over a pregnancy scare. Kat’s parents, on the other hand, haven’t shown up for some sort of reason. A vague dream sequence alludes to her parents dying in some sort of accident, but how a teenager can hide that fact from her school never gets addressed. The third person in this story is Joan (Emma Roberts), who recently left a hospital and wants to head to the town next to the school. She gets offered a ride from Bill (James Remar) and Linda (Lauren Holly), a religious couple who happen to be headed in the same direction.
Did Perkins just marathon David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn movies in order to prepare for his debut? It certainly feels like it, given his liking for overlong pauses in conversations and low, rumbling sounds that only get higher in volume as every exchange keeps going. It’s a cheap attempt to throw some dark undertones over plenty of vague and banal lines of dialogue, lines specifically designed to enhance the aura of mystery. Sometimes, it works; scenes between Joan and Bill early on can feel legitimately menacing because of its ambiguity (it’s hard to tell which one is predator or prey, and Remar and Roberts do a great job at keeping the lines blurred). But Perkins uses this method in almost every scene, which ruins the impact. After getting beaten over the head with “Something’s wrong!” over and over again, it doesn’t take long to stop caring as the tension (quickly) gives way to dullness.
And once Perkins finally shows the hand he’s been keeping close to his chest, it doesn’t come as a big surprise that he was poorly bluffing the entire time. There’s a twist with the Joan storyline in how it fits in with Rose and Kat, but anyone paying a bit of attention to the editing (where loud, sudden flashbacks function as annoying jump scares) should be able to figure the whole thing out before Perkins begins revealing things. The same goes for the supernatural elements that finally creep their way into Kat’s section of the film, but it’s handled so poorly it can feel more like an afterthought than a revelation (the film also has the honour of including one of the lamest exorcism scenes in ages). It isn’t until the very end that Perkins finally brings his main theme to the surface, showing that February is a film about loss, and the desire to find someone (or something) to replace what’s gone. That could have made for an interesting idea when combined with the horror genre; it’s just too bad Perkins decided to dress it all up in a misguided attempt to be clever.