Befitting of the delicious sense of delirium that runs throughout her first feature “Paint It Black,” the birth of Amber Tamblyn as a force to be reckoned with as a director happens at a funeral. In a scene that brings together the two diametrically opposed women that drive the adaptation of Janet Fitch’s novel, Meredith (Janet McTeer), a renown concert pianist known for throwing her weight around, delivers a slap to Josie (Alia Shawkat), the young woman her late son Michael (Rhys Wakefield) was romantically involved with at his funeral, the moment as startling to the audience as it is for Josie since Tamblyn discards the beautifully composed imagery that has come before it to introduce the characters to shoot in a POV-style every bit as direct, down and dirty as the action it captures. That the shot is followed by another that is too good to spoil here, yet involves an act of desperation that is simultaneously horrifying and hysterical is part of a bold streak that one suspects Fitch, the “White Oleander” author whose florid literary style always seemed ideal for the big screen if only someone would take those chances with her, would approve of. Yet putting that speculation aside, Tamblyn has delivered one hell of a debut.
With the kind of disarmingly smart aleck charm that’s long been a part of her performances as an actress to get to darker places, Tamblyn and co-writer Ed Dougherty take material that could easily be the foundation for a sleazy soap opera if not for such sophisticated execution, finding the humor in the battle between a rebellious twentysomething, whose punk-rock roots breed a distrust of authority, and a woman of old money who believes her entitlement extends to people and not just things. Yet the two are brought together over Michael’s suicide, both feeling a sense of loss that leads to anger rather than grief, with the fact that both more or less lost track of him before his death and don’t have any clue as to what led to it, adding to the absurdity of the situation. The way Tamblyn sets up this conflict is brilliant in every sense of the word, showing in vivid, colorful detail the worlds Josie and Meredith occupy before colliding. (It’s a particularly nice touch to alternate the choice of instruments in Mac McCaughan’s score from classical piano in scenes from Josie’s more contemporary life in Echo Park to a synth beat to accompany visits to Meredith’s luxe mansion in the hills, as if time has ceased to exist after meeting in the middle.)
Tamblyn is not above letting Meredith and Josie go right at it, or playing up the Grand Guignol theatrics of the scenario that might seem déclassé to others but make “Paint It Black” so fun. A slithery scaling of string instruments accompany Meredith’s opening the door to Josie the first time after their encounter at the funeral, as if she’s letting in an axe murderer, and sure enough, a knife is plunged into a piano not long after. But between a pair of committed performances from McTeer and Shawkat, the latter of whom is particularly inspired casting in a more dramatic role, and a sincerity on the part of Tamblyn to explore the bravado that the characters use to compensate for what they feel might be missing and what they might never know, “Paint It Black” manages to be both delightfully over-the-top at times and thoughtful, as provocative cerebrally as it is sensually.
Considering Tamblyn’s experience as an actress and a writer in many different mediums, whether poetry or prose, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Paint It Black” finds ways to synthesize these abilities seamlessly, but the confidence on display still takes one aback. There’s a lyricism to the way the filmmaker is able to convey the mental state of Josie, often through montage, that feels urgent and necessary and with stylish work from cinematographer Brian Rigby Hubbard, stirring imagery is never in short supply. This is filmmaking meant to leave a mark, and no matter how fierce the barbs Josie and Meredith may trade with each other with in the film, Tamblyn’s handiwork is the most searing.