When we meet riot grrrl Becky Something, she is in full VH1 Behind the Music meltdown mode. Played by Elisabeth Moss, the fictional ’90s punker is backstage at a cesspool of enjoyment with the exhausted band mates from her all-female trio Something She. Becky’s ongoing self-destruction put them there, as Something She used to fill large arenas.
Courtney Love and her band Hole immediately sprang to my mind as I watched Moss’ tour de force performance, but writer/director Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip, Golden Exits) has said that L7 and the rawk band he really crushes on, Guns N’ Roses, inspired Her Smell. (The tiny indie drama’s title is a mashup of the L7 albums Smell the Magic and Hungry for Stink and the underground riot grrrl zines Ladyparts and Her Jazz.)
Perry and Moss, who is a producer on the project along with the filmmaker and four others, previously teamed on 2014’s Listen Up Philip, in which she played a photographer drifting from her novelist boyfriend (portrayed by Jason Schwartzman), and the following year’s Queen of Earth, in which she appeared as a famous artist’s daughter who goes to pieces during a weeklong stay at a friend’s country house.
The writer obviously penned Her Smell for no one but Moss, who has mastered bringing out the stark dualities of female characters not only as Queen of Earth’s Catherine, but also as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson, Kitty/Dahlia in Jordan Peele’s Us, the two Sophies from Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love and, of course, Offred/June in The Handmaid’s Tale (whose third season drops on June 5).
Very “bad” Becky’s counterbalance is sympathy-worthy Rebecca, who is stripped of her makeup, costumes, stardom, confidence and bad-ass ’tude when we witness her sober recovery later in the picture. Perry has said he was fresh off seeing Shakespeare plays in New York when he decided on a five-act structure for Her Smell, which amazingly has few camera breaks in each section, even when the action moves from room to room. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who has worked on every Perry movie since 2009’s Impolex, shot on 35mm film to plunge Her Smell back into the 1990s.
Performances throughout the film rely on non-musician Moss not only appearing rock-star proficient at playing the piano and acoustic and electric guitars, but also carrying tunes as a vocalist. She handles those tasks well enough that you are never taken out of the picture. It helps that we’re talking about grunge and power pop, not opera or the vocal Olympics of today’s R&B, as well as that Moss must fumble in the studio during Becky’s flameout.
Helping her sell it are surrounding players casting directors of other small movies could only dream of snagging, although the standout for me may be the least known of the bunch. As Something She’s bassist Marielle Hell, Agyness Deyn conveys the heartbreak experienced in the shadows of a crumbling great talent you happen to love. Manchester, U.K.-born Deyn, who is also a model and designer, appears in the current BBC/Hulu series Hard Sun. (Fun fact: She was married for a couple of years and change to Giovanni Ribisi, who, like Moss, is a practicing Scientologist.)
Other fashion models who pop up in Her Smell and give convincing performances are Amber Heard, Cara Delevingne and Ashley Benson. Heard, of course, continues to make headlines thanks to her legal battle with her ex Johnny Depp, which even overshadowed her co-star turn with Jason Mamoa in the recent comic-book blockbuster Aquaman. Jet-black hair makes her nearly unrecognizable as Becky’s regal rock rival Zelda E. Zekiel.
As Crassie Cassie, a member of a new all-girl trio that threatens to eclipse Something She, Delevingne leans on her real-life chops as a singer and drummer. The style icon with more than 500 Instagram followers previously appeared in Suicide Squad and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which includes one of her original songs. Anaheim-born Ashley Benson (Delevingne’s real-life girlfriend), who plays Crassie Cassie’s hit-making band mate Roxie Rotten, hails from Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and the smash TV series Pretty Little Liars.
I have an embarrassing confession when it comes to the actress playing Something She’s drummer. Fresh off episodes of ABC’s The Goldbergs and Schooled, which both feature AJ Michalka, I thought she was in dyed hair and heavy makeup as Her Smell’s Ali van der Wolff. Nope, it’s Gayle Rankin, a real-life friend of L7 bassist Jennifer Finch and, on GLOW, the lauded Netflix series based on the formation of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, Sheila the She-Wolf. But get this: Perry is about to direct his third music video for Michalka’s sister-act duo Aly & AJ, which comes to the House of Blues in Anaheim on June 23.
Her Smell also gets solid support from veteran actors Eric Stoltz, as Something She’s long-suffering producer and record label owner; Virginia Madsen, as Rebecca’s long-suffering (former stage) mother; and Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey and FX’s Legion fame, as Becky’s long-suffering ex-husband. All three went along for the ride of Something She’s huge success, which explains why they are still sticking by their moneymaker long after her expiration date. It’s especially heart-wrenching when it comes to Stevens’ “Dirtbag Danny,” who was forced into being the mother Becky never could be to their daughter.
The first three acts, which occur backstage and in recording studios, are so suffocating that you don’t get to breathe again until the film reaches the country home where Rebecca rebuilds her broken life. My fear is Becky is so odious for so long that audiences will have already given up on her. Then again, plenty of us are still rooting for Courtney Love.
Her Smell was written and directed by Alex Ross Perry; and stars Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevingne and Dan Stevens. Opens Fri. at the Frida Cinema, Santa Ana.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.