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‘M.F.A.’ Review: Rape/Revenge Movie Butchers Opportunity To Confront Sexual Assault

The problematic title combines a severe mishandling of campus rape with a mediocre psychological thriller.
By  · Published on March 17th, 2017

The problematic title combines a severe mishandling of campus rape with a mediocre psychological thriller.

What could be worse than a fundamental misunderstanding of an issue as important and sensitive as campus rape? The answer, as provided by controversial SXSW title M.F.A., is to write a limp, cliched psychological thriller around it. It is difficult to report negatively about a film that focuses on sexual assault when so few films are brave enough to, but when it is handled as poorly and dangerously as it is here, it is important to address its problems head-on.

From its first moments, M.F.A. wastes no time in establishing its protagonist and the world in which she lives in. This is the story of Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), an art student working on her titular master’s degree at a fictional California university. Immediately, we are introduced to the ins and outs of her daily life, from her classmates’ vapid critiques of her paintings to her infatuation with one of them (Peter Vack). The plot takes motion when she takes him up on an invitation to a party that leads to the film’s first brutal and unflinching rape scene; it’s a deeply upsetting sequence so explicit and exploitative in its execution that it still would have felt undeserved in a film that wasn’t already so problematic. Noelle’s initial reaction to this assault is perhaps the film’s only high point; it’s a depressing and realistic few minutes that portray her feeling of alienation and loss of control.

The realism and sensitivity are short-lived, however, when the film quickly goes down an absurd path that decides to eschew the modern truth of films like The Hunting Ground for something that feels more like a Tumblr-directed I Spit On Your Grave. When Noelle takes her case to her school’s counselor (reminder, this is a Californian arts university in the year 2016), she is immediately told to stop pursuing it. Despite this fictional liberal arts college’s absurd lack of sexual assault resources, she then attends a student-led survivors group where the film tastelessly makes fun of female students trying to protect each other from assault. Noelle is bent on seeking true vengeance, and she is only further pushed by a viral video of a rape at the university – another abusively long and graphic sequence that needlessly lingers on the assault.

This “true vengeance”, unfortunately, does not entail a plot about the exposure or humiliation of these sick campus rapists, but rather something far more simplistic and harmful: Noelle begins killing them, one by one, and in ways less imaginative than your favorite network crime procedural. Somehow, she is able to elude officials, leaving them to scratch their heads over art students being thrown off balconies and frat boys bludgeoned to death in the shower. The film never veers back to the realism or nuance of its first act, instead going full speed ahead with every thriller cliche in the book (not even Clifton Collins, Jr. can save the terrible detective subplot) and ending on a spectacularly unsubtle and cruel note that you will have to see it to believe it. Also thrown in for good measure are a conspiracy involving the school’s counselor and an utterly unnecessary romantic subplot with one of Noelle’s classmates.

M.F.A. is a rare film in that it actively made me angry that I had seen it. It is discouraging and depressing to watch a film that so tastelessly handles the issue of sexual assault to serve its own needs; to see a film with two overly graphic rape scenes also feature mediocre thriller conventions and terrifically unsubtle characterization of being a survivor is not a fun experience, to say the least. My personal issues with this film aside, it is simply not a good movie. The dialogue is stilted and serves no purpose other than to further the plot, and the score is almost laughably inappropriate in how it evokes the mood of a vampire film rather than one about campus rape. In one particularly cringe-worthy moment, our protagonist types out her graduation speech, smoking a cigarette and drinking wine so as to look especially cool. “Dear fellow graduates,” she types. “Why art?” The audience I was with couldn’t help but laugh, but I was far too upset and offended by the film’s larger problems to find humor in its shortcomings.

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21. Filmmaker. Writer for Film School Rejects. Featured on MTV, Indiewire & The A.V. Club.