I left Her Smell with one lingering, burning question: What does Becky Something smell like? You never find out! No one discusses odor even once in this movie. Maybe you’re just supposed to assume something, I don’t know, pungent, because Becky is so fucked up? Unless this is a collective “her,” some kind of reference to women in general? I don’t know that we have the time to unpack that idea. Okay sure, maybe I have a problem with being too literal about things. But I do think a movie’s title should make sense.
Otherwise, it’s easy to imagie Her Smell being at least somewhat polarizing. There have been comparisons of this story, starring Elizabeth Moss as the frontwoman for an all-female rock band just over the crest of fame, to Courtney Love. I don’t particularly see it, myself. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry reportedly used Axl Rose as more of an inspiration. That makes more sense.
The plot structure is compelling. There aren’t very many scenes in this film, which runs rather long at 134 minutes. Each scene goes on much longer than usual, with each transition usually a pretty big jump forward in time. There was a moment when I actually found myself thinking I rather liked the editing, but that was before no less than three moments that could have worked perfectly well as an ending. One of these is an extended, almost jarringly quiet sequence with Becky in her house, bonding with the young daughter she has had very little time with. She sings her a song at the piano, the scene is beautifully lit, and I found it all very moving. After that moved into yet another scene, even later in time, it wasn’t even the last time I thought, Wait, there’s more?
There’s something weirdly off about the performances, even though Elizabeth Moss brings a crackling, vaguely sinister intensity. It feels, counter-intuitively, like rehearsed improvisation. It’s easy to assume these extended scenes of rambling dialogue are improvised, but according to Moss herself, every line was scripted. There’s something very impressive about that. There’s also something vaguely unnatural about it, though you can’t quite put your finger on it as you watch.
“Becky Something” is the stage name. Backing her up are guitarist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin). When the film opens, the camera follows tracking shots of Becky backstage after a club performance, these other two women already exasperated from years of her manic behavior. Her ex-boyfriend Danny (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, here very familiar looking but hard to place with an American accent) brings their little daughter by, something I never quite understood. Why not leave the kid with his new girlfriend as long as Becky is messed up?
Becky alienates many people, most notably her mother (Virginia Madsen) and another trio of young women musicians who can’t help but fawn over her. But as unconventional as Her Smell seems in the moment, with nearly all of its scenes set in backstage halls and dressing rooms of theatres (except for that one lovely, quiet scene at Becky’s house), it has a long arc of redemption which, overall, is almost disappointingly conventional. There comes a point at the end where you half-expect the final shot to be a freeze frame of Becky and the band performing onstage.
As such, the writing is competent, but slightly under-cooked. It’s really the cinematography and the performances that make this movie, which command attention. It is a bit of a showcase for Elizabeth Moss’s versatility. It also, in the end, falls slightly short of the feast for the senses it clearly intends to be. Keegan DeWitt’s score is worth noting, with its semi-muted percussive tensions keeping you feeling nervous about what crazy thing Becky might do. Even that feels like approaching a boiling point without ever coming to a full boil.