Review: Scalene (2011)
Review by Annie Riordan
The title of this film is not, as I initially mistakenly believed, the name of a female character. However, that has not stopped my goddamned brain from playing Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene” on repeat every time I see or think of the title. “Scalene, scalene scalene, scaleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeene! Please don’t take my man!” Yeah, I really don’t know what the hell is wrong with me.
Anyway, the word “scalene” is actually an adjective used to describe a geometric configuration: a triangle possessing three uneven sides. But now that I think about it, the lyrics to “Jolene” also work well within this film. Jolene the song is about a love triangle; two women vying for the same man. Scalene the film is also about two women vying for the same man, but for very different reasons.
At the base of this warped triangle is Jakob, a mute and brain damaged boy trapped inside the body of a 26 year old man. Jakob can do very little for himself and requires constant care which his mother – dowdy middle aged matron Janice – is more than willing to provide. Janice has devoted her entire life to her only child, and seems determined to continue to do so until death do they part. But after twenty six years, Janice has become a hard and joyless creature, plodding through her dreary life with no real hope and zero self esteem.
When some slovenly jerk takes notice of her and asks her out on a date, Janice jumps at the opportunity with a desperation that makes one wince. It doesn’t matter that the guy is an ill-mannered, rude jackass and only half a step above a mammoth-bludgeoning Neanderthal on the evolutionary ladder. He’s male and he’s interested in her. That’s enough for Janice, who is determined to grab onto this one shining chance for happiness and make it work no matter what.
Luckily, Janice has recently hired young, pretty college student Paige to look after Jakob for a few hours every day. It’s a chance for Paige to beef up her resume and for Janice to take a much needed break. The arrangement seems beneficial for all, until the day that Paige flees Janice’s house, bloody and bruised. Paige claims that Jakob violently raped her. Janice insists that the girl is lying. Jakob is facing a life sentence in a mental facility, forever parted from his mother. The evidence against Jakob is strong, but Janice’s devotion to him is stronger, pushing aside her fragile sanity and ability to reason. With her new boyfriend gone and her son taken from her, Janice turns her sights to Paige, whom she now blames for the utter ruin that her life has become. Hell hath no fury, you know.
But as the story spins and turns and revolves, showing its three flawed sides from every possible angle, it is left to the viewer to make the incredibly difficult decision as to who is right, who is wrong, and who can really ever make a decision of this magnitude? When does stress and frustration cross the line over into abuse? When do ones good intentions begin paving the road to Hell? How do you know when to intervene and when to mind your own business? What would you do if you were Janice, or Paige, or even Jakob? Who can say what’s best for someone? How far would you go to save someone, and are you absolutely sure they need saving?
There are no easy answers in this darkly intricate and emotionally exhausting tale. Things like this happen every day, and we usually see them from a distance and make our judgements accordingly, depending on who is relating the tale and whose side they’ve chosen. Scalene throws you right into the epicenter of this common but horrifying clusterfuck: is Janice an unfit mother? Is Jakob a danger to himself and others? Is Paige a troublemaking opportunist? No matter which side you take, there’s still going to be a family destroyed in the end. Maybe two. Could you really accept that responsibility with a clear conscience?
This is not an easy film to watch, and not only because it slips so seamlessly from past to present and back again. It’s heavy with sorrow, sinking you into a swamp of despair like a brick tied to your ankle. Performances range from flawless to amazing, particularly from Margo Martindale as Janice. She’s so common, so ordinary, so invisible. She’s the woman at the grocery store ringing up your purchases, or standing next to you at the laundromat. No less impressive is Adam Scarimbolo as the childlike Jakob and Hanna Hall (The Virgin Suicides) as Paige. There are no designated bad guys or good guys in this film. Each character is their own protagonist and antagonist. There’s no rooting for anyone here and no winning goal awaiting us at films end. It’s a truly Shakespearean tragedy, one that still has me thinking about it days later. In truth, I don’t think I’ll ever be done thinking about it.
Scalene is available now on Region 1 DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD, from Breaking Glass Pictures.