TIFF Review: ‘Her Smell’ is an indie rock drama worth the watch

Her Smell
Gunpowder and Sky

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.

We’re introduced to the band Something She, the main riot grrrl band at the heart of Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, via grainy camcorder-captured footage as they hit peak after peak in their career — a Spin cover here, a golden record there — only to be confronted with the crystal-clear reality of their current situation: Their frontman and creative force, Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) begins to self-destruct. This horrifies the other two members of the band — the stable Ali (Gayle Rankin) and the drug-addled Marielle (Agyness Deyn) — and it begins to destroy much more than just a stupid band.

Perry’s film follows the harrowing downfall of Something, and her potential ascent back after some healing. An indie rock period piece that actually deserves the moniker (it roughly spans from ’94 all the way until the start of the new century), Her Smell is a difficult watch, especially for those who have been witness to the kind of abuse that Something hurls at her bandmates and, well, pretty much anybody who will listen, but it’s a rewarding and judgement-free film that believes that people can change, no matter the depth of their darkest moment.

Once again, Perry has crafted a brilliant showcase for Moss, who leaps into Becky Something’s skin with a ferocity rivaled only by her talent. She’s an absolutely magnetic presence, who spends much of the film’s first half oscillating between displays of the brilliance that brought her to the height of stardom (even one of Perry’s throwaway barbs feels essential in Moss’s hands) and all of the other things — the drug abuse, the narcissism, the Brian Wilson-esque writer’s block, the self-hatred and contempt for others — that are expediting her downfall.

There’s a solid supporting cast here for her to bounce off of, including, of course Rankin and Deyn, but also Dan Stevens, who plays her embittered ex-husband, and a series of other supporting performers who turn would-be cameos into somewhat soulful contributions (Amber Heard, Eric Stoltz, and, to a lesser extent, Cara Delevingne). But the focus here, as it should be, is on Moss, who brings an painful reality and heart to a story that I saw portrayed elsewhere maybe four or five times at this year’s festival. Her Smell easily leads the pack.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.