Even more risky than a filmmaker’s commitment to making a genre picture is a filmmaker’s commitment to making a subgenre picture. While exploitation cinema presents inevitable limitations, it’s the conventions of niches within niches that comprise subgenres of exploitation that, if executed with acute sensitivity, can seize the attention of audience in a way that few more generic stylistic flourishes can. Writer/director Austin Chick must have considered this when conceiving Girls Against Boys, his offering to the storied history of rape-and-revenge subgenre films whose highs are demonstrated by the leering sadism of I Spit on Your Grave (the 1978 original and its 2010 remake are equally as guilty of the charge) and the subversive splendor of Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth.
Girls Against Boys weaves in and out of those highs and lows with sleek self-assuredness – hitting upon some nuances rarely explored in Chick’s chosen subject matter, while debasing itself in an effort to make jaded audiences squirm, cringe, and, for those male in attendance, hold on to their pants. The premise is simple: promising young student/part-time bartender Shae (Danielle Panabaker) is wronged by men one too many times, then resorts to violent retribution after being persuaded into doing so by her seemingly soulless co-worker Lu (Nicole LaLiberte). Essentially, Shae and Lu’s rationale boils down to “lying boyfriend + rapist = justifiable multiple homicides.” The men populating Girls Against Boys’ universe exist to present an uncomplicated problem that must be dealt with in an uncomplicated way: they have penises; therefore, they must be murdered.
This somewhat flippant description of Chick’s narrative sounds like a tired dismissal of a boring film, but it’s not. What fills the stretches in between Girls Against Boys’ expected rape and dismemberment sequences is actually quite risky. As the girls’ killing spree begins to kick into high gear, for instance, Chick’s story hangs on brief intermissions in which they enjoy a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, or break into song like old high school friends on a road trip to nowhere. While at times self-consciously hip, these moments play like an earnest attempt to echo feminist lectures on the overt “cuteness” of Japanese anime pushed by Shae’s college professor at the start of the film.
In an effort to give more than one meaning to his film’s title, Chick frames Shae and Lu’s victims’ demise as a bi-product of their own sense of male entitlement. For Terry (Andrew Howard) and Simon (Michael Stahl-David), women’s dependence upon them for sex, and the close physical proximity that comes along with that (girls literally against boys), is a social given. For Shae and Lu, it is this attitude that pits them against their former sexual partners.
But what to make of Girls Against Boys’ sexual politics?
At the screening I attended, I observed a couple seated in front of me prior to the film’s start. The boy of the couple, a fellow critic, explained to the girl (presumably his date) the subgenre of rape-revenge; she was unfamiliar with its history and wanted to know what she was in for. During two sequences of the film – one in which Lu shoots out a police officer’s genitals with a handgun, the other in which the pair dismember Shae’s rapist – I was mindful of that couple. If Girls Against Boys’ vengeful genital mutilation and torture sequences were to be the topic of discussion at their post-screening dinner, would they rank them on the high or low end of the spectrum? After all, genital mutilation is a cinematic trope worthy of serious consideration. Its shock value is too easily dismissed as tactless; each and every instance in which it is staged has its own context and consequences.
Girls Against Boys’ depiction of genital mutilation suffers, like much of the better half of the film, from an inability to plumb the depths of the questions it raises. It does not, like Hostel Part II, demonstrate the inherent ruthlessness of capitalism. It does not, like The Human Centipede 2, show voyeurism taken to its depraved extreme. It does not, like Antichrist, delve into the psychological effects of grief and sorrow. In Girls Against Boys, genital mutilation takes place as a means to an end. Sure, it occurs off-screen, but its implied awesomeness is as vapid as the victims it targets. By the time Shae snaps out of her rage, Lu initiates a borderline homoerotic domestic partnership between the two of them, and, in doing so, conforms to the same roles of feminine subservience the pair set out to dismantle. But, as Girls Against Boys‘ gimmicky ending will show, this gray area essentially exists to distract from the film’s lack of insight. Violence, here, does not evoke meaning. It’s just mean.
While Shae and Lu’s violent acts leave audiences room to ponder their odd couple dynamic, they do so in service of a narrative that fails to consider gender issues in any way that goes beyond their mere mentioning. What we see is a deeply confused pair of girls desperate to break free from traditional female roles. But what we get are a handful of violent tantrums that provide a false resolution to their complex dilemma. Boys and girls aren’t all penis and vagina, and you can’t cure misogyny with a gun. Chick’s reduction of Shae and Lu’s psyche to that of primordial animals is what ultimately does Girls Against Boys in. The film lives and dies by its commitment to a cinema of rape and revenge.
– By Max Weinstein