SXSW Film Review – The Nymphets
In The Nymphets (2015), a well established thirty something named Joe (Kip Pardue) runs into two girls outside of a bar. Brittany (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) and Allyson (Jordan Lane Price) are loud, rowdy, playful, and flirtatious. They quickly take a liking to Joe, and he finds himself drawn to these two beautiful young strangers. Against his better judgment, Joe invites the girls over to his swanky loft to party. What happens next is something of a power struggle, as Joe frustratingly tries to connect to either (or both) of them.
Writer/director Gary Gardner’s feature-length debut is a story of increasing sexual tension combined with escalating dread. This all appears to be a casual – albeit drug filled – good time between three people, but in the creases we can see something bad coming. Joe clearly wants a sexual encounter with Brittany or Allyson, but their attitude towards him is more ambiguous. Do they want to sleep with him, or do they just want to hang out and get high? As the questions become more and more personal, the atmosphere gets all the more tense, as each character tiptoes the line of appropriate behavior.
For his debut film, Gardner exhibits a strong sense of tone and pacing. Using a hand-held camera approach with lots of close ups, Gardner builds the claustrophobic atmosphere with a gradual steadiness. Everything feels improvisational, and although I had an idea of where things could go, I was always unsure of where this would end. At a brisk seventy-five minutes, Gardner effectively moves the story along within these closed quarters. One of the toughest challenges a filmmaker has is convincing an audience that characters in a stressful situation would remain instead of leave. The events progressed naturally, in fact the tension added to the uneasiness the characters were going through. As Brittany, Allyson, and Joe take turns teasing and flirting with each other, we never get a grasp of who’s actually in control here. It’s a high wire act; we watch them wondering who’s going to fall off first.
Casting Kip Pardue as Joe was an excellent choice. I’m sure Gardner saw Pardue’s short but memorable sequence in The Rules of Attraction (2002) as the jet-setting, promiscuous drug addict. A lot of that performance is echoed here. What makes Pardue so good is his ability to be creepy and charming at the same time. Joe is quite a few years older than Brittany and Allyson, but Pardue gives him a quality that almost makes us forget that. He is neither a boy nor an old man; he’s of an age where he has learned the lessons of his youth but still has the vigor to be spontaneous and do stupid things. That balance is the hinge of the whole narrative. The film won’t work if Pardue doesn’t make Joe convincing, and he does. I’m not usually one to talk about “what ifs,” but I believe what Pardue displays here would have also worked if he were cast as the male lead in Fifty Shades of Grey (2015).
Annabelle Dexter-Jones and Jordan Lane Price have a difficult challenge to play Brittany and Allyson. The characters call for them to be continuously giggly and energetic while still keeping within the range of reality. It must have been tough to maintain such a high level of performance for so long. Dexter-Jones keeps a huge smile on her face from almost the beginning to the end. This level of broad performance ran the risk of being over the top early on, but Gardner makes sure to keep everything grounded as the plot moved forward.
The dynamic established by Joe, Brittany and Allyson unfortunately makes it so that a fourth character, Madison (Paulina Singer) is the odd person out. This isn’t a criticism against Singer, who is fine with what is given her, but her lack of screen time simply didn’t give us enough opportunity to know the character. Madison is introduced out of nowhere with no explanation, and doesn’t add anything to the proceedings. At one point, Joe yells out “I didn’t even invite you!” and that’s kind of what I was thinking as well. The natural chemistry of the three leads gets disrupted when the she is added on.
Throughout, there is a nervous vibe signaling that the combination of alcohol, drugs, and sexual frustration will lead to a disturbing ending. Although our suspicions are proved correct, it doesn’t finish in a satisfying way. Sure, the ending is dark, but incomplete. I’m totally fine with final scenes having questions and leaving things open to interpretation, but they also need to provide enough information for us to have an interpretation. Gardner appears to settle on this ending to leave us in a state of shock or discomfort, while characters remain floating in a narrative haze.
There’s a lot of elements I liked about The Nypmhets. The concept is exceptional, and the execution is strong from all the participants. Gardner does fine work with stripped down, limited storytelling. He knows how to control tone, adding a layer of menace underneath the shell of sexual playfulness. However, those last few minutes just didn’t quite hit the mark for me.