Director: Scott Hellon
Writer: Scott Hellon
Cast: Antonia Morris, Mike Mainwold, Nicole Spaulding, Lorri Hornisher, Sara B. Boykan
Running time: 1hr 42mins
Last year, IFL writer Tony Moore reviewed the late auteur Scott Hellon’s final film, WithOutWithin. Submitted “somewhat optimistically” for consideration in our Feature Narrative category, the film might be termed as a non-linear fever dream – from which it was impossible to form a coherent story or even a unifying theme.
As I prepare to review a second submission that came in from Hellon before his untimely passing last year, I would like to note two things relating to what was a very sensitively written review by Tony. First, I must reiterate that we at Indy Film Library were all saddened to hear of Hellon’s illness and death, and offer our condolences to his family and friends – some of whom undoubtedly appear in Decision to Ask Why.
Second, I have the unpleasant duty of pointing out that having a more discernible plot is not in any way a boon for Hellon’s work. If someone had asked me which director I would like to see handle the social issues facing young adults at the turn of the century – from binge drinking, to eating disorders, sexual assault, and the HIV epidemic – it would not have been Hellon’s name on my lips. Over the course of Decision to Ask Why, he lives up to every single one of my misgivings on those topics, while managing to bungle every technical and narrative call made throughout the production.
First and foremost, the film is egregiously sexist. Not the most egregiously sexist film I have ever seen, because I have reviewed Swipe Left. But that was a ‘documentary’ that weaponised a sex-offender to make its point, so that is a low bar to clear. Decision to Ask Why undeniably does still have a problem with its women – who I suspect were not asked for any input in Hellon’s script.
Taking place over the course of two semesters on a college campus, we follow several groups of amorphous female caricatures – each a subtle bag of early 00s clichés that seems to have stumbled out of a Wheatus song – some of whom are not named. Fortunately, most of them seem to be the same character, so that is not inherently a problem. If they are not walking up to other women whom they have never met to offer them advice on how they can dress to catch the eyes of men better, they are sniping behind their backs about how skinny or fat they’ve got.
At the same time, men who honestly seem too old to be there sit five feet from them, decked out in cargo shorts and plaid shirts, loudly making comments such as “she wants it… she just doesn’t know it yet.” It is these frosted-tipped nightmares who the women spend the film’s duration fighting over, desperately trying to gain and maintain the attention of men who could pass for the rabbit from the Accidentally in Love video. At every opportunity, these supposedly irresistible specimens exploit their magnetism for a one-night stand, coldly reminding the sobbing women that “sometimes a fuck is just a fuck”.
You might charitably argue that it was Hellon’s intent to skewer these backward stereotypes, with the film’s conclusion suggesting that things don’t have to be this way. The problem with that is two-fold.
First, to have suggested that women unanimously enforce their own position within patriarchy is born out of a stunning lack of self-awareness. There is not a single hint that there might be women in the world who do not care what men think – let alone want them sexually or romantically – and then there’s the suggestion that every woman automatically expects their first sexual partner to immediately want to marry them. Painting women in this light suggests they are a uniformly fragile and naïve demographic, which would have been considered sexist in 1904 – let alone 2004.
Then, second, Hellon completely undermines any intended point about patriarchal expectations, by having the ‘voice of reason’ critique them from a point of unabashed sl*tshaming. One of the film’s interchangeable leads reveals that she had sex for the first time with a man, and then found out that he was not interested in a relationship. She is upset when her friend (who has been the subject of a tone-deaf bulimia sub-plot) suggests she is sympathetic, but says that “sometimes sex is just sex”. This causes their quiet roommate to interject, having so far avoided everyone else on campus – and immediately shout, “DON’T TRY TO MAKE HER THINK LIKE YOU!” The implication is that ‘like you’ would be someone who approaches sex as something that does not necessarily need to result in a long-term relationship with a man. And how dare you not see that as inherently desirable.
Of course, gender politics is not the only realm in which the production falls on its face. One storyline, in which one woman realises a classmate of hers she has been bullying has AIDS and thereby decides maybe she should be nicer, left me scrambling for words. After days thinking about the childish application of makeup for ‘lesions’ on the woman’s arms, or the implication that only these kind of stakes could warrant an apology for bullying, I’m still unsure. I think I will settle on ‘pitiful’, though. With every jarring scene-transition, every nonsensical editorial jerk through an already flimsy timeline, and every inclusion of some asinine 00s rock-rap song (“this one goes out to all the ladies who know me”), it seems less and less likely that anyone offered the film’s ill-informed and incompetent creator an honest appraisal of the unfolding catastrophe.
Perhaps this is why the film came to be sent to IFL with a ‘completion date’ of 2021. The fact that nobody told Hellon ‘no’ during this production may have been interpreted as ‘this is good’. Over two decades, that may have grown into the belief that something which might have been better off buried should receive a re-release.
The one thing I will say in favour of Decision to Ask Why is that it is never dull. Its feverish editing and erratic politics see it endlessly overlap and contradict itself, upending its own geometry in a way that might honestly make it the first known example of a non-Euclidean film. I can’t say I believe that made it worth unearthing to inflict on a new generation of viewers, though.
It would take thousands more words to sum up everything from Decision to Ask Why here. I haven’t even mentioned the bizarre camera angles, the John Waters-style crash-zooms, the ‘jokes’ about women preying on underage men, or Hellon’s own appearance as part of a Jay and Silent Bob-style duo of stoners, who begin throwing singular psychological and sociological terms at us in a scatological word-salad. It is mesmerising in its ineptitude, each excruciating detail inviting you to stare on in spite of yourself. Like Jerry Springer, or a rail disaster.