Reviews Short Narrative

Rag Doll (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: Andrew Yanni

Writer: Judie Feenstra

Cast: Judie Feenstra, Travis Deslaurier

Running time: 14mins

Rag Doll is one of those films where criticism is exceptionally difficult, due to its central plot being built entirely on deception. In this context, suggesting a certain actor’s delivery lacks genuineness, or the script seems confused, would invariably lead to being told that you “missed the point”.

Filmed on location, the story unfolds in night-time Los Angeles. Now, guerrilla filmmaking after dark in LA (to avoid the hassle of blocking roads, keeping out tourists, or dodging permit fees) can look cheap. But it should be noted, before anything else, that Tim Küsel’s low-fi cinematography is downright gorgeous – showing you can make a film that looks like a million dollars, without a million dollars.

The rest of the production does a good job of making the most of what it has, too. In particular, the casting from Clay Banks puts together a cast who may not be well known, but have an uncanny talent for acting ever-so-slightly-off. And in this case, that really is a virtue.

The action is split between two time zones: the present, where aspiring Charlotte (Judie Feenstra, who also wrote the screenplay) trudges through a deserted street in Downtown LA, and the recent past, where she is struggling to break into the film industry. A surprise party, hosted by her boyfriend and agent Grant (Travis Deslaurier) seems aimed at raising her spirits – but as the evening progresses, it transpires that there may have been ulterior motives at play.

If ever there were a red flag for a relationship in modern Hollywood, an executive being boyfriend and agent to an up-and-coming actress is it. And the ominous nature of Charlotte and Grant’s connections grows from the minute the party begins. Members of the gathering immediately unsheathe their smartphones, to capture the presence of a ‘celebrity’ – putting us on edge as to how well the attendees of Grant’s shindig actually know Charlotte.

Wearing the very definition of a shit-eating-grin, Grant insists his partner “give the people what they want” by addressing them – but the mask falls momentarily when she responds “Do I have to?”, and for a moment his face leans forward, eyebrows raised, as if she has said something offensive. Regaining his façade, Grant leans in to kiss Charlotte on the cheek, insisting “You can do it.”

Unsurprisingly, the impromptu speech is an utterly uninspired, rambling set of acknowledgements – delivered not with warmth, but the kind of forced grin you would receive from a customer service representative being forced to explain why their boss has decided to put your gas bill up by 80% – again suggesting there is not much rapport between the guests and the person they are supposedly celebrating.

Immediately after, we are shown the psychological impacts of this unwilling artifice. While Grant steps outside for some fresh air, Charlotte withdraws to the bathroom, and downs a nameless pill – before examining herself in the mirror, and reshaping an angsty expression into a grin before exiting. Grant immediately sets about introducing her to a producer – who is very enthusiastic about her talent, and believes he has just the right project to house it. However, he claims he is unable to disclose anything about the project – including who she will be starring opposite. Once more, red flags abound.

Throughout the discussion, both Grant and the producer exude all the authenticity of three-dollar bill. For all the toothy grins and fervent head-nodding of the pair, there is something dead behind their eyes that brings their overplayed excitement into sharp contrast. For anyone who has seen Birdemic, they will be familiar with this unnerving, hammy insistence that life is perfect for its protagonists. In that case, the obvious artifice is hilarious, because it is unintentional. The acting is immobile, wooden and forced – but in a way that only aims to convince us a “sexy lingerie model and successful software salesman” are genuinely living the dream before copy-pasted stock animations try to peck them to pieces.

In Rag Doll, however, the intense friendliness of the scenario is not reciprocated by Charlotte. In this sterile, transactional space, it becomes clear she yearns to escape into something more real.

Of particular note, in this case, is the performance of Deslaurier as Grant. While I initially took his delivery to be hackneyed, when the film takes a turn in its final act, the lack of sincerity he conveyed comes to make complete sense. Similarly, Feenstra’s initial woodenness paves the way for the truth of the situation to finally come out – emphasising the emotional clout of what has been going on.

That is not to say the film is perfect, however. It seems to miss a sizeable goal in addressing the performative falseness of LA society with regards to Feenstra’s accent, for one thing. Originally from the Netherlands, she makes a brave attempt at an Angeleno accent – but it never quite convinces. While her script might have been written with a determination to convey her acting prowess, and ability to carry an accent, it would have been more powerful to pick up on this in the climactic scenes – and director Andrew Yanni might have pushed harder for such an inclusion. If Charlotte were to dispense with her phony accent during her confrontation with Grant, maybe throw some choice words at him in Dutch – even if there were no further elaboration than that – it would give us a whole new dimension to the character. Here is a young woman who crossed the Atlantic, for a shot at stardom, and erased her personal history to fit in – but she has overcome her demons to embrace herself.

Leaving the story at that point might have been a neater way to conclude the story, too. As it is, the didactic climax sees Charlotte making a new home in one of LA’s booming tent cities. A modern take on Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, it risks romanticising the horrors and hypocrisy of the vast neglect of LA’s poorest people – casting them as people who ‘opted out’ of Hollywood’s rat race, instead of people who have been abandoned to rot in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.

I must confess that I was initially unconvinced by this film. I found the early performances and dialogue grating – perhaps because I have been conditioned to expect the worst of any film where the actors play as disingenuously happy. But Rag Doll is clearly an exception to that rule – it is a film which builds very successfully on that inauthenticity, before skewering it in its final act. There are tweaks that could be made, narrative disciplines which might have improved it, but overall, this is a well rendered exploration of a two-faced world that swallows so many people whole.

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