This “Asking for It” review was first published June 13, 2021 from the Tribeca Film Festival.
Eschewing subtlety for in-your-face urgency, Eamon O’Rourke’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere “Asking for It” is packed with familiar faces, timely messages, and righteous fervor. Trashing the screen like “Promising Young Woman”‘s feisty Gen-Z sister, it has all the makings of a solid cult favorite.
O’Rourke has thoughtfully curated an unusually strong lineup for a feature debut, both onscreen and off. Our entry into the film’s world is wide-eyed, sweet-natured Joey (co-producer Kiersey Clemons), a small-town waitress who lives with her grandparents (veterans Patricia Belcher and Wayne Dehart). A chance meeting with an old friend (Casey Cott, “Riverdale”) leads to a devastating night that threatens to destroy Joey’s soul.
The change in her demeanor is noticed by Regina (Alexandra Shipp, “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”), a diner regular who introduces Joey to her friends, the vigilante Cherry Bombers. All of them have been deeply hurt by one or many aspects of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, and rape culture, and they know the system isn’t going to provide them justice. So they take matters into their own hands.
With guidance from matriarchs Sal (Radha Mitchell) and Fala (Casey Camp-Horinek), the group — which also includes Beatrice (Vanessa Hudgens), Rudy (Gabourey Sidibe), Lily (Leslie Stratton, “Truth or Dare”), and Jett (Leyna Bloom, “Port Authority”) — has a new and particularly dangerous target: They’re planning to take down Mark Vanderhill (Ezra Miller), the odious alpha leader of the Men’s First Movement. Mark convinces his many followers that women exist to be used and abused, but the real power comes from his silent partner, Sheriff Morel (David Patrick Kelly), who is also rumored to be trafficking vulnerable women.
O’Rourke presents Joey as so open-hearted that we’re on high-alert for danger from the first scenes. That sense of anticipatory dread never fades, thanks to a variety of intentionally-built connections between action and audience.
Just like his heroines, writer-director O’Rourke pulls no punches, preferring to land hard even if he intermittently misses. His multiple editors, in particular, toil overtime in a film that won’t allow a moment’s rest onscreen. Every scene is designed to feel portentous, but with so much talent working together, the constant jump cuts, graphic still shots, and Lilah Larson’s ever-present (and excellent) score do keep us effectively on edge.
Careful casting is equally essential to balance any heavy-handedness, and Clemons, Shipp, and Mitchell in particular flood the screen with charisma. Hudgens’ fans, at least the ones who missed “Spring Breakers,” may be shocked by her edgy performance, though she doesn’t seem quite as comfortable with the intentional shock value as some of her costars. Sidibe is underused, but Luke Hemsworth makes the most of his supporting turn as Sal’s ex, a well-intentioned if misguided officer hoping to stop the women from destroying themselves.
Co-producer Miller, whose magnetism can feel boundless in the right roles, is miscast as a gun-toting alt-right icon who favors epithets like “libtard.” Mark is not believably evil enough to genuinely worry us, though Kelly deepens the Sheriff’s broad-brush villainy into an unsettling portrait of innate malevolence.
O’Rourke’s burning sincerity is evident throughout, and the film ends with a note that he shot on the ancestral homeland of the Wichita People, with a desire to “further acknowledge the tribal nations who were forcibly removed from there and the 39 tribes who reside in Oklahoma today. Native peoples make many important contributions to the land, and we stand with them and thank them for allowing us to be there.” The film’s press notes also make repeated mention of his perspective and privilege as a cis-gendered white male, as well as his determination to build a team that includes BIPOC, non-binary, and trans creatives.
Some may react cynically to O’Rourke’s far-from-understated efforts. But even if a message movie this earnest is unlikely to change many minds, its diverse cast and crew represent a rejection of the past, a rewrite of the present, and a model for the future. What’s more, the issues O’Rourke addresses have never been well-served by understatement. The Cherry Bombers know this. Their fans will, too.
“Asking For It” is now playing in select theaters and on demand.