At the beginning of James Westby’s “Rid of Me,” a frowning, diminutive thirty-something woman—rendered alarmingly feline by bursts of Goth makeup—and an icy blonde princess stride past each other, in slow motion, in a supermarket. “You bitch,” the blonde mutters under her breath. Upon which, the Goth girl, without breaking a sweat, jams her hands down her skirt and smears menstrual blood all over the blonde’s face.
This prologue is, like much of the rest of “Rid of Me,” jarringly funny yet punishingly shrill. Westby has a great deal of malicious, playful energy; his sheer joy at making this movie electrifies almost every frame. But though you share in his enthusiasm at times, Westby is ultimately hampered by the same hyperkinetic overconfidence that marred “Run Lola Run” and similar movies; it confuses breathlessness with boldness. The movie needs a massive dose of Ritalin.
After the intro, “Rid of Me” flashes back to an earlier incarnation of the same Goth character. Meris (Katie O’Grady) is slim, petite, pretty in a sort of prim way, married to a bland but nice-enough beefcake named Mitch (John Keyser). When Mitch gets a job offer from an old friend, they relocate from California to Mitch’s hometown, a quaint stretch of Portland, Oregon, and their serene marriage starts to disintegrate before they’ve wiped their feet on the welcome mat. Mitch’s childhood friends throw him a surprise party in their unfurnished new home, and quickly prove themselves to be the most obnoxious, unwelcoming snobs in perhaps all of screen history. Little by little, Mitch gives in to their not-so-subtle attempts to drag him away from Meris—she’s shy and enjoys boring stuff like gardening and cooking organic food for hubby—and into the arms of his old sweetheart, Briann (Storm Large), the same blonde from the opening scene.
In interviews, Westby admits that he drew on his own bad experiences with friends of former girlfriends, and at times he strikes richly comic notes of empathy. Who hasn’t felt uncool, lame, even hopeless, trying to impress unlovable people that are nonetheless important to the one you love? And in terms of physical features, the casting here is perfect. It’s not only Mitch and his jocular male friends that tower over Meris; the girls in the group are all big-boned, voluptuous, Amazonians.
But Westby is an unflinching embracer of overkill. Not only are these friends chilly towards Meris; the first time they meet her, they outright blame her for Mitch’s falling out of touch with them. Not only are they un-P.C.–and oddly yuppie-ish for lifelong Oregonians—they’re overtly racist, trashing Meris’ Arabic neighbors. Not only are they openly prurient; they’re also humorless and oversensitive when Meris makes a sex joke at their expense. Admittedly, it’s a very off-color joke, about a touchy subject, but would it really offend all of these louts so deeply?
The exaggeration doesn’t stop at the content level. Westby shoots most of the film like its own preview: dialogue from one scene played over a wordless adjoining scene, pounding Gothic piano notes every time something awkward happens, hastily edited montages of crying, dancing, cooking. The story is clearly personal to Westby, yet he insists on amplifying even the quieter scenes to a smothering point. We sympathize with Meris’ isolation but there isn’t any room for her character to breathe and in turn, there isn’t a chance for us to fully take her in.
Until, that is, a few beautifully-handled scenes that unfold once Meris has officially split from Mitch, in which Westby proves he has a real capacity for restraint. Finally, the camera stays still; it lingers on Meris as she grieves in private, as she quietly observes her new co-workers at a thankless candy store job (Rita Parrish, who plays the plump, stridently by-the-book co-worker, is a comic marvel). In the funniest bad sex scene since “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” O’Grady shifts through an actress’ field day of emotions. Pissed off that her friend is having mind-blowing sex one room over, she gives in to her practically comatose date, alternately bored, amused and horrified as he does the deed, runs to the bathroom and promptly collapses on the floor.
O’Grady is vulnerable and captivating and alive in this portion of the film, embodying everything that might be sexy about a pale, sad wallflower. And once we’ve watched her character reverberate to some degree, it’s devastating watching her regress into the repugnant Goth we saw in the first scene. In these harrowing sequences, Westby deftly emphasizes how, in the past ten years or so, the Goth lifestyle has come to look desperate rather than bold.
If “Rid of Me” ended here, with Meris blindly believing that adolescent aggression is the way to heal from a break-up, it would be raw and affecting enough to recover from its earlier flaws. But Westby cops out with an outro as synthetically happy as the intro was synthetically macabre. Using the same flashy editing tricks and off-kilter soundtrack, Westby means to leave us celebrating all that is great and wholesome and wonderfully kitschy about West Coast hipsters—hipsters, no doubt, like him—but the self-congratulatory theatrics leave a sour taste.