The Dead Girl (2006) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for language, sexuality, nudity, grisly images, some violence, and drug content
Running Time: 94 min.

Cast: Brittany Murphy, Toni Collette, Rose Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt, Kerry Washington, Nick Searcy, Mary Steenburgen, Piper Laurie, Giovanni Ribisi, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Bruce Davison
Director: Karen Moncrieff
Screenplay: Karen Moncrieff
Review published February 9, 2007

The Dead Girl is a collection of five separate but related stories, each just a little under 20 minutes in length, with different characters, all spinning off of the discovery ot one dead girl. The first story, entitled "The Stranger", relates of a lonely woman (Colette, Little Miss Sunshine) who happens upon the dead girl's body and reports it to the authorities, to the dismay of her overbearing, abusive mother (Laurie, Eulogy) . The second story, "The Sister", follows a forensics student (Byrne, Marie Antoinette), who also happens to be the long-suffering sister of a girl who has been missing for many years, and upon close examination of the deceased, thinks this dead girl could be her. Next is "The Wife", featuring a neglected housewife (Hurt, Lady in the Water) who is frustrated with her husband's (Searcy, The Assassination of Richard Nixon) incessant need to go out for long drives without taking her along, who suspects that he might know more about the series of unsolved murders occurring in the area. Fourth is "The Mother", featuring the somewhat naive mother (Harden, American Dreamz) of the girl in question, traveling from Washington in order to find out more about the girl who ran away from home years ago. The film ends with "The Dead Girl", told out of continuity, relating the girl's (Murphy, Sin City)  situation on the last night of her life.

Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, who made an impressive debut with the emotionally sensitive indie film, Blue Car, this is a personal tale about many people whose lives are changed, some for the better, some for the worse, by the sudden, grisly death of the girl, for reasons that aren't completely known to any of them. Through the stories, we, the audience, can put the pieces of the puzzle together, but in the meantime, we realize just how the lives of runaways, prostitutes, and missing children affect the families, friends, and loved ones left behind. Between women who are mothering, and those who are smothering, these are women in search of themselves but they can't seem to break free of their existence to be what they want to be.

Perhaps just as impressive as Moncrieff's characterizations and style is her ability to draw out some fantastic performances from the main players, some of whom show a depth and range they may never seen before. Commanding attention is Rose Byrne as the depressive sister whose life has been stymied by her parents' obsession with getting her sibling back at any cost. She's matched with an equally heart wrenching turn by Mary Steenburgen (Elf, Hope Springs) as the mother who refuses to let go, Marcia Gay Harden's anguish at the closure of her girl's disappearance, Kerry Washington (Little Man, Fantastic Four) as the hard-hearted hooker too inured by life's downs to get emotionally attached to anything, and a surprisingly strong performance by Brittany Murphy as the soon-to-be-dead girl just on the verge of making an earnest attempt at getting her life back in order to make good for the sake of her young daughter.

The Dead Girl is a somber, downbeat drama that may test the patience of those who need a silver lining for a story full of so many dark clouds. In the end, it's a sullen, bleak mood piece about basically good people trapped in unhappy lives, some of their own choosing, though all are trapped by continuing down the saddest path when the uncertainty of escape proves too much of an uncertainty to just get up and get out. Unlike the equally arresting Sherrybaby, this is not a tale of survivors, it's a tale of victims.  It's dedicated to the people happiness forgot, whose voices are rarely heard until it's too late.   

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo