First-time feature filmmaker Justine Bateman throws down more than a few traps for her eponymous character in the drama “Violet”: She’s has to embody a character whose biggest problems literally play out in her head, while contending with Bateman’s liberal use of poetic on-screen text that doesn’t always seem necessary, and she’s expected to convince us to feel empathy for a pretty, successful Hollywood executive. These aren’t easy asks, but they’re also part of the artifice that Bateman handily chips away at as “Violet” unspools. They also provide star Olivia Munn with the chance to turn in the best work of her career, one only enlivened by the great potential for missteps that Bateman’s thorny script provides. And Justin Theroux, who provides surreal voiceover for the protagonist’s self-doubts, adds an additional terrifying dimension to her conundrum.
The Hollywood setting is incidental, though Bateman’s status as a former teenage star (“Family Ties”!) and a long-time inhabitant of Tinseltown adds a palpable veracity to even her most mundane details (a particularly bad party experience seems like the sort of thing drawn from real life). But the Hollywood setting and vague avatars of some of the entertainment industry’s elite (studio production heads, avert your eyes from this one, it’s gonna hurt) also offer Bateman and Munn the chance to take some necessary jabs at the entire establishment.
Mostly, though, the jabs remain, quite literally, inside Violet’s head. While she has found success as a film development executive at a well-regarded boutique outfit, everything else in her life is in disarray. Her romantic life is bad, her family is the source of great pain, and every move she makes stems from a low-simmering mania that runs through all her days. The real problem is that Violet’s internal monologue (which Theroux injects with utter dread) has nothing but bad things to say to her. The insults run the gamut, from “you’re fat” to “you majored in the wrong thing in college” and “you don’t remember enough people’s birthdays” and the perennial cry that she’s just “a baby.”
But Violet is starting to realize that her internal voice, which she dubs to a shocked friend as “the committee,” might be wrong. Bateman takes this scenario to obvious ends: Scenes of Violet are overlaid with florid cursive meant to approximate her real inner voice, which wonders “Why can’t I just be happy?” and worries that “I feel like I don’t who I am anymore.” Abrasive interstitial videos of decay and destruction only punctuate Violet’s pain, and while Bateman’s more florid touches sometimes wear, Munn is so devastatingly good at selling Violet’s internal strife that it’s easy to forgive Bateman’s other creative impulses. With a star this well-suited for the role, Bateman has already proven her salt as a keen-eyed filmmaker.
Once Violet realizes that her experience is not universal and that most people don’t have a voice cutting them down at every moment (her baffled best friend Lila, an underused Erica Ash, delivers this news quite handily), she makes tenuous steps toward changing her life. Bateman throws in a few flashbacks to explain away the source of Violet’s inner “committee,” and while some of them only serve to bolster obvious details (we know, for example, that Violet’s family relationships are bad, a flashback to her childhood just makes that more plain), others show how fully Violet’s life has been consumed by what amounts to self-sabotage.
What follows is a delayed coming-of-age tale, and while Bateman sidesteps some bigger issues — Munn, who is half-Chinese, here plays a character who is either white or so white-passing that her race is never mentioned — she probes deeply into others that so rarely get the Hollywood treatment. Violet is someone whose entire existence, from her high-powered career to her terrible love life, has been directed by flawed perceptions and pernicious beliefs about sexist expectations. As Violet pushes forward to what she hopes is a better future, Munn delivers a graceful, cutting performance, as her pain always feels grounded in real, quantifiable challenges.
Bateman may wrap her story in Hollywood gloss (no, not every person subjected to Violet’s brand of shame gets to come home to Luke Bracey as her obviously lovestruck BFF), but there’s a deep universality to the message here. It’s made all the more powerful by Munn’s performance, which cuts through Bateman’s occasionally fussy flourishes to deliver the most substantial work of her career. “Violet” may be Bateman’s vision, but it’s through Munn’s eyes that we see it most clearly.
“Violet” premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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