SXSW 2020 Review: Claire Oakley’s “Make Up” is a Different Kind of Nail Biter

“It’s not what it looks like, it’s how it makes you feel,” Jade (Stefanie Martini) tells Ruth (Molly Windsor) in “Make Up,” preparing her for what is most likely her first manicure. Applying Scarlet Sunrise nail polish helps Jade pass the time at the sleepy seaside trailer park where she’s found herself, having come up to take care of her mother and finding herself with no way of really leaving, but the younger Ruth sees things a bit differently, recently receiving the green light from Tom (Joseph Quinn), her boyfriend of three years who she believes is a promising young man with a home of his own and a job, yet to anyone older than her 18 years, his cramped trailer and gig at an arcade are decidedly less impressive.

Still, how things appear and how they feel are two decidedly different things throughout Claire Oakley’s funhouse mirror of a feature debut – emphasis on fun – where it isn’t uncommon to wonder whether Ruth will ever see what others do, even if her own perspective remains entirely justified. She’ll sometimes be caught standing in Tom’s home looking out over the ocean pondering all the possibilities she can see in the distance from a window while Oakley and cinematographer Nick Cooke will cleverly use the reflection from just outside to remind that it her daydreams can imprisons her where there’s no ability to act on them when she’s stuck inside. As a result, “Make Up” organically evolves into a horror movie without really leaving the aesthetic of the kitchen sink drama it seems to be at first, transforming the mundane world around Ruth into territory as treacherous as if she wandered into the woods in a slasher movie.

Oakley’s unique gift to envision peril in everyday life is what makes Ruth’s discovery of a single strand of red hair so deeply unsettling, and though she instantly believes it’s an indication that Tom’s been cheating on her, the follicle is revealed to be a bit more of a red herring, particularly once she starts working alongside Jade. Her concerns about Tom lead to questioning everything about herself, and “Make Up” vividly articulates that deepest of fears when it becomes obvious that only Ruth can figure out who she wants to be and what she wants, even with Jade around as a kindly sounding board (as well as a vision of the despair that could set in if she stays put a few more years).

The fact that the wind never seems to let up in “Make Up” is both a constant reminder of the unseen forces that Ruth runs up against and the cool, brisk quality of Oakley’s storytelling, remaining tantalizingly elusive throughout and although the film flirts with putting too fine a point on things towards the end, it so ably channels Ruth’s experience that it rewards with the same level of epiphany, perhaps encouraging its lead to take her rose-tinted glasses off once and for all, but most certainly revealing a new filmmaker with a truly fresh perspective and an exciting future ahead.

“Make Up” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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