“LADYWORLD”— Happy Birthday


Happy Birthday

Amos Lassen

Eight teenage girls are trapped in an endless birthday party after an earthquake. The girls’ sanity and psyches deteriorate as they run out of food and water. Eventually, they turn to their baser instincts and exploit each other’s fears and insecurities.

Dolly (Ryan Simpkins) is about to learn precisely how savage teenage girls can be to one another. “Ladyworld” is a spin on “Lord of the Flies”. Eight young women become trapped in home that becomes a prison. As the days pass and supplies run out, tensions and pressures rise, rivalries unfold, sects form, and secrets and regrets rise to the surface.

Director Amanda Kramer and co-writer Benjamin Shearn give their film a border line surreal edge, causing the audience to wonder if any of this is real. It’s possible to see this situation as practical truth, that these girls are stuck in a house, or as a metaphorical purgatory. Either way, the film concerns itself more with psyches and unravelling social conventions.

Every element serves to create and enhance the unsettling, unnerving atmosphere. Cinematographer Patrick Meade Jones frames shots like an adolescent last supper and there is no traditional music score. Instead there are layered acapella vocal sounds and eerie songs sung by the cast. The girls talk of “The Man,” unseen but in the house with them, there is a looming threat of dread and harm. Everyone becomes increasingly unhinged as fear and paranoia bloom, building to a deranged climax.

The girls split into two factions. There’s the good girls, led by Olivia (Ariela Barer). Reluctantly taking the role, she just wants everyone to behave and get along and wait for the rescue that may or may not be on the way. Dolly is on her side. Sweet and simple and sheltered, she dissolves more quickly than the others. On the other side is Piper (Annalise Basso) leading the way. Already a mean girl with a keen eye for deep emotional evisceration, she becomes positively vicious, relishing in her power and the pain of her adversaries. This sect becomes wild, painting themselves in near-kabuki make up and adopting pseudo-post-apocalyptic costumes, hoarding resources and violently protecting their turf. Along for the ride, she drags Romy (Maya Hawke), who texts and talks on the phone as if anyone was out there, or as if it even still had a charge. Outside of the main four, however, the rest of the cast is basically the chorus, background players taking up space in the contained, constrained setting.

Director Kramer pushes her characters to the brink and beyond, by turns reminding the audience of heinous acts people are capable of, but also that these are awkward kids. The core of the film lies in the dynamics and intricacies of adolescent female relationships, here stripped to their barest form. Kramer uses the framework with a clever strength and style. Occasionally thin on narrative, the performers carry the film toeing the line between chaos and civility. There are lots of tension and intrigue.

Kramer succeeds in taking a low budget and limited set and providing an uncomfortable atmosphere yet thrilling ride. It is very reflective of the country’s current state of paranoia and fear and how those emotions can get the best of a person and force them to regress to baser instincts. This is an unforgettable thriller that assaults the senses.

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