Tag Archives: Wendy McColm

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FUZZY HEAD (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Wendy McColm

FEATURING: Wendy McColm, Alicia Witt, Jonathan Tolliver

PLOT: Pursued by the police, Marla is dogged by memories as she attempts to get a grip on what happened after a fateful evening at her mother’s home.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Presented as a thriller, McColm’s intensely personal film explores guilt and inter-generational trauma in a style reminiscent of Lynch, Tarantino, Fincher, and even . Thus equipped with its own storytelling tool-kit, Fuzzy Head shifts gears faster than you can say “unreliable narrator.”

COMMENTS: From what Marla can piece together, her mother is dead. The fact that she has not slept in almost a week doesn’t help her understanding of the situation. It also doesn’t help that she’s faced years of emotional abuse from mom, interrupted by moments of emotional clarity and ineffable love. Marla’s own tragedy consists of her being forced to cope with oblique hints from her mother, “a woman who was never heard in her pain.” McColm translates the disorientation of “fuzzy head”—a semi-clinical condition whose symptoms include problems with focus, memory, and logic, often stemming from a sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, and guilt—onto the screen with intensity at times, softness at others, absurdity, despair, sympathy, and humor. All the while, they thread a narrative whose focus is woven from muddled tatters into a crystalline whole.

Blank asks Marla, “What happened to your mother?” Marla is screaming, flailing; Blank is her best—and only—friend. Marla wants to kill her mother. Perhaps Marla did. Police have questions, but not as the string of faceless therapists Marla endures as she attempts to discover what happened that one night, and what has happened her entire life. Her brain snaps back to a memory of triumph: firing a six-shooter into the air when she successfully rides her bicycle without training wheels. Her mother stands by proudly. Her brain snaps back to a memory of debasement: being forced to walk across the shards of a kitchen glass she dropped. Her mother stands by in disgust. Marla’s memories crash upon her as she navigates her life, waking up in a cheap motel serviced by a strangely insistent housekeeper. Memories mingle with present-day experience, and she doesn’t always know what’s real, particularly when interacting with Blank.

For those out there baying for symbolism, Fuzzy Head comes up aces. On her journey toward redemption, Marla’s dreams give her access the worst parts of her self and her experience. A sign to hang on her door for the maid. A key dangling from Blank’s rear-view mirror. The six shooter she buys back from a sympathetic local (“I think I killed my mother with that gun”, she admits; “Yeah, we all feel that way sometimes,” the seller replies). Lynchian touches include a theremin solo in an empty nightclub. Tarantino time-loops and snap-cuts keep up the pace. Fincheristic perception-humor takes the edge off when events become too stinging. And the cast of recurring, unreal-maybe-real personae bring to mind the continuous efforts of the guardian angels secreted in Jacob’s Ladder.

Fuzzy Head is a stylish and stylized film. Pondering the influences, Wendy McColm might be accused by some as being derivative. Not by me. As with just about any and all filmmakers, the methods they use are lifted (and altered) from those who came before. Indeed, the last “new” movie I remember seeing came out in 1991. The directors I’ve mentioned have developed a language of cinema for those of us who are frightened, disoriented, confused, and amused, and Wendy McColm’s second feature film shows an already mature storyteller finessing to convey “fuzzy head”: desperate sadness, acute loneliness, and traces of confused amusement. In so doing, McColm tells a decidedly personal story in such a way that spectators like ourselves can look on with satisfaction.

No word on Fuzzy Head‘s post-festival distribution plans at the moment; we’ll let you know when we know more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a hauntingly beautiful and surreal exploration of childhood trauma… a strangely affecting and expressive feature with a heavy emotional core.” -Brian Fanelli, Horror Buzz (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BIRDS WITHOUT FEATHERS (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Wendy McColm

FEATURING: Wendy McColm, Alexander Stasko, Lenae Day, Cooper Oznowicz, William Gabriel Grier, Sara Estefanos

PLOT: The lives of six odd characters intersect in increasingly surreal ways.

Still from Birds Without Feathers (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Wendy McColm’s debut feature is a defiantly odd duck; a near-comedy about self-absorbed young people desperate to connect and perversely unable to get out of their own way. It seems like the kind of script you might write in the aftermath of a post-breakup acid trip.

COMMENTS: Each of the characters is alone, talking to themselves, when we first meet them. A depressed-sounding man (with an effeminate voice) recites bad advice into a tape recorder (“sometimes, you have to put others down to give yourself a boost in self-esteem”). A Russian immigrant practices saying “nice day” in front of a mirror, trying to erase his accent. A woman takes selfies in her underwear and uploads them to Instagram.  A stand-up comic recites his (not funny) routine and pumps himself up for a performance. A nurse practices saying the word “ow.” One other character pops up (or at least, is properly introduced) after the opening scenes: a chameleon-like woman who lives in the desert and is easily the strangest of them all. Even though these people will spend the rest of the movie bumping into each other, they remain, for the most part, alone; locked inside themselves by their own insecurities.

Social interactions in Birds Without Feathers often make little sense. In one scene, the stand-up is sucker punched by a passerby, then verbally abused by the passing nurse; he then asks for, and receives, her number. Several of the characters do “successfully” hook up together (never more memorably than in one scene that may change the way you think of Jeff Goldblum forever). But more commonly, social intercourse involves a coworker complaining that the dead look in your eyes is making him feel weird, or someone using “you know the awful thing about you?” as a first date conversation starter. A sense of lonely, uncomfortable melancholy pervades.

Writer/director Wendy McColm plays the Instagram model, and congrats to her on giving herself such an unflattering role: not only is Neil/Janet pathetic, she’s also the only character with (bizarre) nude scenes, and she gets her face spackled with white goop while making an uncomfortable confession. McColm’s character is probably the closest thing to a central presence, but the stories are fairly well-balanced between the six main players, with no one performer overly dominating the narrative. Although their lives all intersect at some point, there isn’t much of an overarching plot. Birds Without Feathers is really about a cast of eccentric characters put into a series of sketches. Some are dramatic, and even touching; some are funny (or almost funny, in an awkward shaped-like-a-joke-but-lacking-a-punchline way); and some are just flat-out weird. They’re not all hits, but there are enough good moments and perspective switches to keep you interested. It should go without saying, however, that this one is not for normies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like ‘Mulholland Dr.’ and ‘Magnolia’ took a detour through Silver Lake, emerging worse for wear from the journey.”–Kimber Myers, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)