Some of the most difficult, painful films to watch are some of the most necessary. Such is the case with Natalia Leite’s M.F.A., a rape-revenge thriller that asks the hard questions with no easy answers. Granted, all films of this ilk are uncomfortable to watch, and should be, but none seem to model itself so close to reality and offer such insight as this one.
Written by Leah McKendrick, the narrative follows college art student Noelle, a shy introvert struggling to impress her class with her “safe” art. When her fellow classmate and crush invites her over to a party at his apartment, her excitement gives way to terror when she’s violently, and graphically raped. Traumatized and stunned, she slinks back to her apartment, where she holes up for days until her neighbor, Skye (Leah McKendrick), offers a shoulder to lean on with the advice that Noelle should just forget the ordeal and move on. Talking to the school about it will only make matters worse, she warns. Yet reporting to a counselor is precisely what Noelle does, and she finds Skye’s advice perhaps wasn’t as terrible as it sounded. The older woman asks pointed questions, asking if Noelle was sure she said “no,” or if she perhaps had too much to drink. The victim blaming drives Noelle away, and confronting her unrepentant rapist only further damages her psyche.
Discovering she’s not the only victim on campus, she soon emerges from her fragile state as an unlikely vigilante, doling out vicious justice on any rapist on campus that never had to face consequences for their crimes. Her retribution empowers her, improving both her art and her school life, further fueling her desire to continue her spree of enacting her version of justice. The longer it continues, the more brazen and violent her revenge becomes.
Francesca Eastwood turns out a powerhouse performance as Noelle. She deftly balances the rich layers of her character, and there’s no denying that she’s a star on the rise. It’s largely due to her performance that makes this film so utterly devastating. The other credit goes to Leite’s bold, unflinching approach to the heavy subject matter. She doesn’t shy away from the graphic nature of the crimes committed, both by Noelle and the sexual predators. Yet, it’s not exploitive either; there’s no male gaze or voyeuristic approach that’s typically found in this subgenre. Leite places you in the victim’s shoes, making for a visceral experience.
McKendrick’s screenplay is an open dialog with the audience, asking so many questions that it loses focus near the end. Topics like victim blaming, slut shaming, whether well-intentioned actions do more harm, and very real rape culture are all heavy topics that deserve to be discussed, though it’s too much to effectively cover in such a short run time.
Ambitious screenplay aside, this rape-revenge thriller is poignant and authentic examination that’s worth watching. Stellar performances, horrific subject matter, and a dash of hope and heartbreak makes for one of the best films screened at this year’s SXSW. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s not meant to be. It’s a reflection on society that proves we have work to do. It’s mean, dark, and brutal, but with an underlying vein of hope.
M.F.A. premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX.