Synopsis: Ally Sheedy stars as Lucy Berliner, a once-famous photographer, whose career is revitalized when she meets Syd (Radha Mitchell), a beautiful young assistant editor for a prestigious photography magazine. Withdrawn from the art world, Lucy is reawakened by Syd who offers her the hope of escaping her drug-filled world. Before Syd realizes it, she is drawn into Lucy’s seductive and dangerous mix while forced to make choices she never imagined.
High Art 7.5
For years I had ‘High Art’ on my mind. It came out on home video at about the time that I started working at the video store and I remember reading that it was a good film, but also that it was dark or heavy. While I like drama, I tend to avoid them because I’m rarely in the mood for heaviness when I want to be entertained, when I want something relatively light – so no post-apocalyptic dramas for me after a hard day at work. Still, when I find myself “coerced” into watching one, they often end up rating fairly high.
But I steered clear of ‘High Art’. I was never a fan of Ally Sheedy, having only known her (briefly) in ‘The Breakfast Club’. While this may be enough pull for some, it wasn’t a defining factor in generating interest in me until recently, when I realized that her character in ‘The Breakfast Club’, or at least her interpretation of it, was my favourite of the lot. I was suddenly curious to find out what else she’d been up to.
And ‘High Art’ is pretty much the only picture of hers that I could recall. In fact, even now, as I write this, I have no sense of Sheedy’s career. She may have been in gems, but I have no idea whatsoever. None. As far as I know, she may simply have disappeared like so many teen stars because she ended up in the wrong vehicles for her talents. Perhaps her ambitions were invested in the wrong places or she was misunderstood. Or maybe she chose to limit her exposure.
But, after seeing ‘High Art’, I’m much more likely to want to see what else she’s been up to.
To be perfectly honest, the film hinges on two performances: her own, and Patricia Clarkson. If not for these two, this would otherwise be a very average film about romantic obsession, featuring a very average cast – with Rhada Mitchell sleepwalking through her part of Syd. The story was believable enough, but the various motivations were missing from the screen, leaving gaps in our understanding and acceptance of the proceedings. Nothing struck me as being false or impossible, but it certainly left me quizzical and unsatisfied.
For instance, Syd’s obsession with Sheedy’s photographer is never actually explained here – nor is Sheedy’s mutual interest, quite frankly, aside from the potential professional advantages that it might bring. We also never truly get any insight on Syd’s behaviour, both from Mitchell’s performance, but also from the script; she does a lot of things, but we don’t often understand why she does these things and how that fits in with her character’s psychology. She’s essentially vacant, a puppet going through the motions.
Bizarrely enough, even though the main focus is on Syd, Sheedy’s Lucy is actually better developed. Is it due to Sheedy’s strength? Was the script tailored to her? Or is the main character Lucy -not Syd- after all? Either way, it was decidedly the correct thing in that it allowed Sheedy to shine in the role; it gave much more to work with. I even get the feeling that this may have been a career moment for her, that she may have chosen the part for exactly that reason.
I should note, though, that this only crossed my mind because Sheedy looked SO emaciated – disturbingly so. It made me wonder if she had done this for the part, or if she was in ill-health or had eating disorders at the time. I could only think of De Niro’s ‘Raging Bull’ metamorphosis and wonder if this was potentially what Sheedy was going for. If this is the case, then she did a spectacular job of it and should be commended for her devotion to her art. If not, then I hope that she got better.
Meanwhile, Patricia Clarkson bring her usual allure to a character that is quite pathetic. Her role is Sheedy’s soon-to-be ex-lover, a former actress who is now so dependent on drugs and alcohol that she is incapable of doing much else. Clarkson’s mumbled, slurred German accent was fantastic, but caused me quite a lot of trouble, in that I didn’t understand half of what she was saying. I wish I had put the subtitles on. But, otherwise, she was as amazing as ever. I love Clarkson. She is way under-rated.
Of particular note was the photography, which was by Jojo Whilden and emulated Nan Goldin’s work. It is said that the story is based on Goldin’s life and work, but I don’t know how true this is – this film came out before the internet boomed, so information is scant at best. But I did like what I saw (I would even love to see a book of Whilden’s ‘High Art’ photography) and will no doubt read up on both artists to see what I’ve been missing out on all this time.
Having said this, ‘High Art’ remains a great idea that could have been fleshed out a little better and that would have benefited from a stronger overall cast. If only Mitchell had been of the same caliber as Sheedy and Clarkson, it would have balanced things out a bit more. However, as it stands, the picture doesn’t truly develop to its full potential. In an alternate reality, with its relatively minor issues resolved, this picture would no doubt deserve a higher rating – perhaps an 8.0 or 8.25.