Paint It Black: My War, by David Bax
From nearly the beginning of Amber Tamblyn’s Paint It Black, I had my guard up. Shots of the Echo Park Blvd. street sign and the cult famous happy foot/sad foot spinning podiatrist sign made me worry that I was in for a try-hard catalog of cool kid L.A. signifiers. Things nearly came to a peak when the protagonist, Josie (Alia Shawkat) answered the phone in her apartment and it was a hot pink, decorated, chunky plastic artifact of a landline. Shortly after this, though, it occurred to me that I may have been too harsh. At the very least, the phone thing was forgiven as I gained the realization that this was a period piece (probably sometime in the 1980s). That doesn’t explain why characters are seen drinking cocktails out of mason jars at a hip bar but the subtlety of the era is commendable. Once I’d relaxed, I eventually found myself under the sway of this messy but unique movie.
Josie makes money as a model for art classes, which is where she meets her boyfriend, Michael (Rhys Wakefield). After Michael’s suicide, Josie is drawn into the web of his manipulative but sympathetically tortured mother, a rich and famous classical pianist named Meredith (Janet McTeer).
Tamblyn’s aptitude for casting is one of the film’s strongest suits. Shawkat’s natural, salty, earthy presence has been a welcome addition to every film and television show in which she’s appeared. It has perhaps never been put to better use, though, than being stacked up against the towering, regal iciness McTeer brings. With these two as foils, it would be nearly impossible to make a film that is anything less than entertaining. Filling in the edges are superb turns from Wakefield (in flashback) and Alfred Molina as Meredith’s ex-husband.
The other weapon in Tamblyn’s arsenal is Paint It Black‘s visual aesthetic. Shot by cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard (2011’s Circumstance), the film has a gorgeous, if sickly, palette of warm, bleeding colors, like a faded record cover. Even Meredith’s tattered, old Hollywood mansion seems to be dissolving into the past before our eyes.
If that sounds a bit florid, then you’ve got the idea. Paint It Black is purple and overcooked, swelling to burst with rococo emotion. It doesn’t always hold together but it’s too outstanding to be ignored.