HER SMELL: What Does Redemption Actually Look Like?

Her Smell is available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Max.

One of the scariest things, for me personally, is the idea that once you’ve done enough things wrong, whether you meant to or not, you will never come back from all those wrongs weighing down on you. You will never improve, you will never do better, you will continue to spiral, the deep pit you’ve dug yourself into will never be anything other than the rest of your life, and you might as well give up now. That’s an existential fear I’ve held for a long time whenever my mind settles to the places I’ve been and the deep dark pits I’ve had myself in. The notion over and over again is that not only do I not deserve forgiveness, but there’s also nothing I could ever do to make amends for what I’ve done wrong.

Her Smell plays a bait-and-switch with its audience by spending half its runtime digging itself into as dark and as noxious of a pit as it can possibly find, and then the other half beginning to suggest whether or not there’s a way out of it. The film has to portray the complexity of a person doing deeply unethical and harmful things out of immense pain and pressure placed upon herself, and then has to go through the laborious process of how we make amends and how we improve without excusing those previous actions. This is one of the toughest possible things any piece of content can try to pull off, and so many have failed. We love easy redemption. We love how with a wave of the hand, all our wrongdoings are forgiven and we didn’t have to work for it. Reconciliation without reparation, if I remember the quote correctly. Kylo Ren commits mass genocide and tortures people, but he was nice to a Jedi once so all of that is forgiven, and I say that as a person who overall enjoys those films. To give easy redemption to those who do great wrongs in fiction without remorse is to do the same in reality, where those wrongdoings have tangible effects. Whether these wrongdoings were committed out of collective pain and trauma, out of sadism, out of a genuine lack of understanding, the reasoning doesn’t matter. Amends must be made, the work must be put in.

Her Smell is a revelation because in spite of the lengths it goes to alienate its own audience and horrify you (and if you decide to watch this motion picture, you will be horrified at times), it also believes very strongly in a model of rehabilitation that’s about making amends while also acknowledging we are all deserving of love and kindness so long as we know how to properly ask for it. Only a film designed with every frame to facilitate empathy can show what it shows and go to those places without having an end goal in mind. The subject of this experiment in empathy is the lead singer of a punk band called Something She, who goes by the name Becky Something. Becky, at first glance, comes off like the typical A Star Is Born rise-and-fall narrative we’re so used to. She’s a heavy drug user, though the film goes out of its way to highlight this as a disease and not a crime, it does not frame this as something that should be seen as shameful but rather the result of broken systems. She emotionally and physically abuses every single person in her life, and her own ineptitude and apathy leads her to becoming a danger to her own infant daughter. Most films would portray this for two hours and change, declare Becky to be a failure and an example of celebrity excess, and shut the door right as she has her worst public outburst and ruins her life. That’s only the halfway point for Her Smell, even as it very quietly but defiantly stands in stark contrast to the usual narratives we’re used to. Where A Star Is Born ends, Her Smell is at the midpoint. Everything that comes after justifies the existence of the film’s wretched first half.

The way Becky treats others, like the way a lot of us have done the things we regret most, come from a place of immense pain and trauma. What those things are exactly, we will never know, and the film’s refusal to simmer in those details makes the same point we should be making about ourselves: we should not be expected to lay ourselves bare to “deserve” love and compassion, and neither does Becky or her bandmates, each of them dealing with their own respective problems. I’m being very intentionally vague because you need to experience it for yourself, but what I can say is that the film’s strongest creative choice is to set it in its entirety as five real-time scenes, each in a single location with a cavalcade of character actors hitting their respective performances out of their respective parks. It’s a choice taken from the 2015 hagiography Steve Jobs, and whereas that was the public defense of a man who was known to have never invented anything and worshipped for no reason, this uses the formats in ways that that film could have never dreamed of.

I spent the film’s first half often watching with my eyes in between my fingers, not because the film has any jump scares or anything gory, but because I saw myself reflected more so in Becky’s bandmates than Becky herself. But I saw myself reflected in Becky too, saw the lengths she goes to out of her own latent self-loathing, the primal need for self-destruction that motivates every choice she makes, daring the world to strike back, which it does every time. You see the people in her life slowly losing patience with her, and even their own passivity in how they’re too afraid of conflict to enforce their own boundaries. Ostensibly each of the five scenes, without the context each provides arranged next to one another, with home movie footage of the band at their most successful as a sort of interstitial between each of the sections, is a simple domestic drama. That drama may involve someone being sliced open with a knife or a clearly fake guru stealing money (only moments of a deeply chaotic couple hours you’ll spend with Something She), but the structure finds the sweet point between the strengths of theater, characters and subjects contained for maximum emotion, and cinema, images and scenes spliced together to create additional meanings.

Funnily enough, Her Smell even does the parent/child relationship in the exact same way Steve Jobs does it, but also outpaces it in every possible way. The way the former averts the flaws of the latter is to keep Becky’s daughter Tama young enough that she doesn’t fully understand her mother’s actions and thus isn’t affected by them the way the rest of the cast is over the film’s ten-year canon, but also to contrast their interactions in each scene so that they feel like a naturally occurring development despite Tama being played by a different actor each time. Only Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame has hit this particular sweet spot better than this, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of how much the changing cast members gel so beautifully with those who remain.

In the end, you can’t write about Her Smell without it coming off as utterly bonkers and deeply disjointed as the film itself dares to be. Sometimes you need to watch a film that can reflect the most tumultuous your mind can be back at itself. That’s something I very badly needed during a time where so many are echoing the notion that time no longer truly exists, going from a state of constantly being surrounded by others to near-omnipresent isolation, like so many of us have. Ultimately though, the film suggests the same way out that we have to take in spite of the parts of our lives we’re unfairly suffering for: that it will take a long time, that it will be agonizing, but the work must be put in now. We see Becky’s journey to isolation and her possible journey away from it. The work is arduous and miserable and mostly done in solitude. It is tedious, and not at all exciting, and mostly not of our own making. We do it even though what and who hurt us won’t take responsibility for it.

What’s most astonishing, what almost had me in tears, is how the film is called Her Smell for a reason, and it’s such an unexpectedly wholesome and pure reason that it will shatter you when the meaning of the title finally makes itself clear.

Atlanta-based writer and filmmaker. You can find so much more at https://palmerrubin.carrd.co/

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