Felt is a filmic exercise in which the “narrative,” inasmuch as one even exists, is so embedded in the film’s formal properties that it becomes futile to separate one discipline from another. The piece functions as a synthesized whole. As a result, it is a film for which criticism and analysis cannot be separated, either. The exploration leads to the perspective. And as such, this is an intriguing thematic exploration that finds its halted, lumbering execution leading to its ultimate downfall.
A critical success coming out of last fall’s Fantastic Fest, Jason Banker’s film is a creation uniquely its own, inspired by real-life experiences of its star, Amy Everson, and developed initially as a documentary. In the making, a quasi-narrative was formulated (there are no screenplay credits; the story is credited to Banker and Everson) but there is still no clear through-line for this material. Felt is more a stream-of-consciousness piece akin to a tone poem but even more nebulous, since the tone is never nailed down. It’s a fractured psychological snapshot with gender-shifting undertones.
I say “undertones” because, while the film is raw and unabashed, I don’t find it to be overtly feminist the way many have labeled it on the heels of its festival success – including the distributor’s own press notes. In fact, with the exception of a short monologue at the beginning and a deeper soliloquy later on, the film is devoid of explicit “feminism” as it’s come to be understood today. We are offered a window into the ebb-and-flow experiences of a young woman who is clearly acting in outward defiance to gender norms. Her motives are only slightly clarified in the course of the 79-minute film. Abuse is suggested heavily, rape more subtly. But what we are witnessing is not, in my estimation, an act of feminism so much as gender upheaval – and in spite of any reductive interpretation, the two are not the same thing.
Everson plays a character named Amy (the lines between fiction and reality are thickly blurred) who is not devoid of a social circle, but who does seem to be at odds with social norms. She enters situations almost solely to subvert them, whether it’s a double date or an underground photography shoot. Sometimes she is solemnly anti-establishment while others she bounces off the walls. There does not appear to be a rhyme or reason for her social behavior; anarchy seems to be her only constant.
In private, there is more structure. Amy’s bedroom is littered with pop art almost universally focused on male genitalia. Garish, ornate felt penises are Amy’s artistic expression of choice (in real life, Everson runs an e-business from which these penises are available for purchase). Some merely line the shelves of her room, while others are attached to disturbingly non-descript costumes worn by Amy – often in private and occasionally in public. Aside from the overt sexualization of the aforementioned attachment, these costumes are conspicuously lacking in physical detail. They are like manifestations of the imposing figures lurking in our nightmares; the basic form is distinguishable but the details are lost in the haze of the subconscious.
Why Amy immerses herself in this lifestyle, and to what end, is not made immediately clear – and perhaps the film might’ve been more suggestively powerful had it remained that way. Instead, there is a tacked-on plot involving an unassuming guy named Kenny (Kentucker Audley) who embraces Amy as she is and appears to offer both a legitimate romantic relationship and a refuge from the pain at the core of Amy’s state-of-being. Of course, this becomes a teetering point for Amy’s fragile psyche, but instead of exploring such a conflict with nuance and empathy, Felt swiftly devolves into a faux-indie conclusion often perpetrated by film school students who want to be bold but don’t have a firm grasp on what they want to say. It’s empty bluster posing as attitude.
Worse still is that the conclusion is entirely discordant with the relative grace of all that precedes it. In spite of its billing, Felt never seems like a particularly brash or fierce indictment of rape culture. For the majority of its running time, it feels more measured and observant than that, an intimate character study that explores the effects of sexism and rape without hitting the audience over the head…until, inevitably, that ridiculous finale. There is an engaging aura surrounding Felt – Banker is an intriguing visualist, Everson is a compulsively watchable performer, and there is a certain rough-edged charm to how their film is mounted moment-by-moment, propelled by ideas they can’t quite put their fingers on. They are literally “feeling” their way, but they abandoned their search before they found any answers.