Bad Reputation

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Face it, I'm getting older. It has been a long time since I walked the hallways of my old high school. I don't much relish being about ten years away from middle age, and while many would correctly say I don't act my age. There are those who wish they could go back, all the way to their teenage years, back when they were in high school and they had their whole lives ahead of them. My folks always used to tell me these were the golden years.

Baby, you can keep them.

Anyone who refers to adolescence as a golden anything has obviously forgotten what it was really like. Teenage years are hard, cruel times when you put up with a million different developing emotions and a new drama hitting you from each side. I say this now, and I had it better than most. I was finally coming out of the shyness I had held onto for most of my life. I was active in different activities. I had some good people watching my back. And yet, I still wouldn't go back.

This is the dangerous and uncertain time Jim Hemphill explores in his debut feature, BAD REPUTATION, a film we first told you about last year. Although many things have no doubt changed since I walked the high school halls, it's sad to see some things have stayed the same - all the wrong things.

Right away, we get to know Michelle Rosen (Angelique Hennessy), a painfully shy bookish girl. Every day at lunch, she sits alone underneath a tree, trying to lose herself in one of her books. In plain view is the life she wishes she could be a part of, the popular life where people her age looked out for one another and didn't have to worry about being accepted. Michelle believes such a life is not for her. For one thing, she doesn't talk much. For another, she isn't from their world. Michelle comes from a poor household with a single mother who drinks and projects all of her insecurities onto her offspring. She is bussed into the elite rich kids' public school from the other side of the tracks. She goes to their classes, she walks their campus, but like many in her situation, she is never truly welcomed.

One day, the invisible wall that separates Michelle from the cool kids develops a crack. Aaron (Jerad Anderson), the captain of the football team no less, casually walks up to Michelle and begins to talk. It is the highpoint of Michelle's day, or probably even her month. She is invited to a party and eagerly agrees to go. Once there, she socializes with Aaron although the girls from the clique glare at her all night. Before long, Aaron pours drink after drink for Michelle and Michelle, not wanting to ostracize herself, foolishly takes what is offered. This includes a roofie that Aaron slips into her drink without her knowledge.

Despite her protests and resistance, Aaron rapes the virginal Michelle while his buddies hold her down and wait for their turn. If this were your standard rape-revenge film, this would be just cause for Michelle to take up arms and dispense some justice. But as if getting deflowered against her will by three sweaty jocks wasn't bad enough, the worst is yet to come. When Aaron's on-again/off-again girlfriend sees Michelle passed out and violated in Aaron's bedroom, she immediately blames the victim. The female extension of the clique not only humiliates her at the party, but starts a campaign to ruin her. It starts easily enough, all they do is plant the simple rumor - Michelle Rosen is a slut. Suddenly, everyone looks at her differently. She cannot protest the rumor. No one will speak up for fear of defending a social leper. Her counselors and even her mother tell her she must have done something to have people say such things, since no one would start such a rumor for no reason. The rumors become worse and worse and soon Michelle cannot even show her face anymore. This person who no one had ever noticed before has become Public Enemy Number 1 simply because of dirty gossip. It is as if Michelle has been raped again and again.

Eventually, Michelle realizes that things are only getting worse and she has nothing left to lose. Instead of rebelling against her bad reputation, she embraces it. She buys sexy clothes that will accentuate the baby doll image. She flirts non-stop. All outward appearances suggest that she has become the slut everyone accused her of being. She uses this exterior to lure the clique into her trap. She takes them, one by one, pretending to seduce them and then murdering them until she is satisfied. What's more, she uses their own technique against them. She doesn't just kill them physically, but socially as well, planting evidence that will ruin their once untouchable reputations.

When we first talked about BAD REPUTATION those many months ago, it sounded like the type of film we could sink our teeth into. I'm happy to say that the results are even better than we expected and although some may disagree, none of what I'm about to say is affected by the fact that Horror Express is mentioned in the end credits. This is a film that does not simply recycle themes of cult films gone by. BAD REPUTATION is a powerful and unsettling experience, the rare cult film that you will want to discuss long after its over.

Hemphill has created a film that deserves to be talked about anywhere it plays. It is more intelligently written that most of the films that land on my doorstep. The dialogged is fresh and realistic. At times, it plays more like an indie drama. But don't let that frighten you off. There is a payoff, especially in the conclusion in which our heroine dresses as Jason and puts the bite on Aaron, who's egomania has him dressed as Jesus Christ. Besides, the film covers enough ground to keep everyone satisfied. Hemphill's direction is very subtle. He uses muted tones to tell the story in an effective yet unobtrusive way. Aided by a top notch musical score from John LeBec, he creates dramatic tension with each scene. The fact that this is one of the more realistic genre offerings of late is tragic for a large number of reasons.

In any SOV film, acting tends to be an issue. Yet here is one of those great rare cases where everyone is on the mark. The cast, most of them new to the scene, are all so genuine, the film at times feels less like a scripted drama and more like a fly on the wall documentary As the haunted Michelle, Angelique Hennessy deserves special notice as she gives a performance that just makes your heart ache. Never betraying her character, the pain she goes through is apparent even when she delivers her well-deserved revenge.

BAD REPUTATION offers a depth to its characters that we often miss in our little film community. While Aaron and his posse are loathsome creatures, we get to know them well enough that they are aren't black and white. The clique has their own motives, whether it be for the perpetrators or the accomplices, which makes it all the more insidious.

BAD REPUTATION is an aberration of sorts. It is the rape-revenge film that is less explicit than say I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE or MS. 45. It delivers a similar message albeit in a much different way. It's the rare film in the sub-genre that you could proudly sit next to your copy of REVIVING OPHELIA without fear of putting on heirs. Hemphill's film is a thought-provoking and intense journey through one girl's loneliness, betrayal, frustration and rage. It is a true cinematic achievement in the realm of independent cinema. It will scare you, it will thrill you, it will make you think and most of all, it will make you feel.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis