'The Perfection' Review: A Maniacally Crafted Composition Strikes A Crucial Chord [Fantastic Fest]

Wrinkled and pale, the face of a woman stares into the camera as she lay lifeless on her pillow, her young daughter calmly watching from a chair in the corner. This is the introductory shot of director Richard Shepard's The Perfection. An immediate glimpse into the twisted and traumatic story that tackles notions of PTSD, Shepard delivers a bold feature that keeps audiences vividly engaged throughout.

The film focuses on Charlotte (Allison Williams), a former cello prodigy who had to cut her career short when her mother fell ill. While tending to her dying mother, another young cellist by the name of Lizzie (Logan Browning) replaced Charlotte as the star pupil of their reputable academy. This transition is symbolically shown in a stairwell scene as Lizzie literally climbs the steps towards success while Charlotte descends towards a path of death and despair. Once her mother passes, Charlotte decides to step back into the symphony world as she witnesses the fame that she herself could have achieved. Befriending her rival, she desperately attempts to reclaim her relevance and show a new side to her, deeply haunted by a relentless past.

Set in an affluent world of classical music and prestige, Shepard delivers one hell of a gritty ride. The overall plot of the movie is best left vague because like life itself, the moment you think things will turn out one way, you're quickly blindsided and need to adjust to a new reality. The story is structured in four chapters, each capturing their own aesthetic, personal identity, mission, and explanation. The deceptive delivery is wildly entertaining and arouses a mixture of emotions that will cut deeply into viewers.

Williams shines as a fragmented Charlotte and delivers a perfect follow-up performance from her sinister white supremacist role in Get Out. She has a natural ability to tease audiences and carve out multi-layered character complexities, a skillful artist of performance juxtaposition in her own right. Browning also delivers a captivating performance as both a foil to Williams' character and a complement. Their dynamic fluctuates at a rhythmic pacing with intense highs and lows on par with the elaborate compositions they master on the cello. It also should be noted that both actresses took lessons in order to play the melodies themselves on screen.

The need for perfection is explored with various subtexts within the characters. While this notion is commonly utilized for obsessions of physical form revolving around beauty and youth, Shepard approaches perfection in a way that is reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. He focuses on the need to excel at one's craft through relentless practice and power dynamics–both internal and external– by harnessing the egocentric desire to befriend and conquer the competition in order to fulfill one's goal. Elements of jealousy, rage, calculated revenge, and obsessive grooming all play into each chapter while the girls' relationship evolves. To say that Charlotte and Lizzie play through the pain is an understatement. Their struggle through various life-changing experiences is exemplified in physical, emotional, and psychological loss with grave lasting effects. Held to dangerously high expectations from their mentor and coach, Anton (Steven Weber), his psychological impact bleeds into the religious realm with his belief that perfection brings one closer to God.

Shot over the span of twenty-three days, the set design and location decisions of Vancouver and Shanghai were wise choices since they exhibit a sense of elite social status as well as common, metropolitan normalcy. With television director credits ranging from Girls to Criminal Minds, Shepard hits all the cinematic notes with The Perfection. De Palma style diopter shots are sprinkled throughout the film as well as elements of gore and violence reminiscent of Korean horror films. Shepard's feature violently plucks at your heartstrings and cements itself as a relevant, albeit brutal allegory for conversation topics revolving around trauma. While the story is convoluted at times and morphs in ways that come off as a movie-within-a-movie, it still delivers in an exciting and disoriented fashion. Through its themes, The Perfection forces audience to face the music, and like trauma itself, will linger as the film violently plays into the relevance of today.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10