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Alia Shawkat

“PAINT IT BLACK” My rating: C+

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With a title like “Paint It Black” you don’t expect a barrel of monkeys, nor do you get one with actress Amber Tamblyn’s directing debut.

Indeed, “Paint It Black” is a self-consciously artsy downer; not even a last-shot glimmer of hope is likely to rouse audiences out of their glum funk.

Which is not to say the film is terrible.  It’s got some terrific acting and creative visuals. But it lacks the emotional substance to make us care.

Current indie “it” girl Alia Shawkat stars as Josie, an artist’s model, black-out alcoholic and punk music groupie in pre-cell phone ’80s Los Angeles.

Early in the film (the screenplay is by Ed Dougherty and Tamblyn, adapting Janet Fitch’s novel) Josie receives news that her boyfriend Michael, who disappeared some time earlier, has committed suicide in a cheap hotel room.

In flashbacks we see how they met (she posed for nude studies in the class where he was an art student).  Their relationship, depicted in silent (save for music) snippets scattered throughout the film, is presented using Hallmark card visual shorthand (we see them discovering a junked upright piano, painting it together in their living room, spooning in bed etc.) .

They seem happy enough, though what a late-night carouser like Josie sees in the squeaky-clean Michael (Rhys Wakefield) is a mystery. Truth is, because he has only a few words of dialogue in the entire film, we get almost no sense of his personality.

Which makes Josie’s post-mortem obsession with Michael all the more unfathomable.

Turns out Josie isn’t the only one with Michaelmania.  His mother Meredith (the great Janet McTeer), a famous concert pianist, is also driven to the edges of madness by her grief and fury at having had to share her boy with this other woman.

The meeting of the two women is memorable — at Michael’s funeral Meredith tries to strangle Josie in front of the casket and a mortuary full of shocked mourners. Later Meredith raids the apartment where Josie and Michael lived, stealing all of his drawings, journals and personal effects.  Josie retaliates by sneaking into Meredith’s hilltop mansion and stealing back as much of the loot as she can carry.

We’re poised to see the story become a possibly violent test of wills between two women. But it never gets that far.

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