As my colleague Rob Simpson keeps having to point out, a film doesn’t need likeable characters to be good. It doesn’t even need smart characters. There’s a whole subgenre of noir fiction from Jim Thompson through to the Coen brothers which takes knuckle-dragging characters doing repellent things and alchemises them into something approaching classical tragedy. It’s a tradition that Eric England’s Josie, released on DVD by Altitude Films, tries to plant its feet in, but the comparisons do it no favours. Much like the title character, it’s trying to act grown-up to hide its immaturity.
Played with a nicely-observed stable of gum-chewing, hair-twirling mannerisms by Sophie Turner, Josie is a tattooed high school student who moves into a downmarket motel, immediately catching the eye of Dylan McDermott’s middle-aged loner Hank. The relationship between an older man and an underage girl is hardly one that’s without precedent in noir, and for a while, the moody lighting and score seem to be hinting at something along the lines of Thompson’s still-impressively sordid novels. And then, having brought things to an immediate simmer, England does very little until a big twist at the end, a twist that the rest of the movie has clearly been designed as a life-support system for.
A great twist – Don’t Look Now, say, or Les Diaboliques – makes you reassess the genre of the story along with the characters and plot. Josie’s late twist, by contrast, marks the first time the movie’s narrative has matched its style. Josie falls in with a group of metalhead teenagers who play pranks on Hank, and for a while, the story’s basic ingredients – abuse, poverty, disaffected teenagers rounding on a local loner – are the same as Justin Kurzel’s nightmarish debut Snowtown. Here, though, the pranks remain at a petty level, never gaining any kind of danger or sadism that might give the narrative some ominous momentum. It’s as if someone filmed The Florida Project in the style of a late-90s neo-noir.
More importantly, the movie’s sympathies are out of joint with what a modern audience will be thinking as they watch this situation unfold. We’re clearly meant to feel for Hank as the teenagers continue to harangue him, but the kids – played by Halloween’s Daeg Faerch and Val Kilmer’s son Jack – represent such a weirdly dated idea of delinquent youth. Drinking cans of beer rather than taking opiods and listening to hard rock rather than trap, they’re more likely to inspire nostalgia than fear. Moreover, the thing that makes them take against Hank is his increasingly obvious obsession with Josie. It’s hard to view a group of teenagers as unreasonable for not wanting a creepy older man lusting after their friend.
Anthony Ragnone II’s script made it onto the 2014 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, alongside other recent releases like Bird Box and On the Basis of Sex. It is actually possible to see how it might have worked better on the page, particularly in the moment where Robin Bartlett’s fellow motel dweller Martha warns Hank against pursuing Josie. The film briefly clicks here, and makes you think that a version of Josie where Hank’s obsession was portrayed as something frightening and irresponsible might, at least, have conjured up enough suspense to distract you from its incoming twist. In England’s telling, though, the emphasis is on Hank’s loneliness and sadness rather than exploring the disturbing aspects of his desires. Yes, he has a tragic backstory, but when he first reveals it the scene is played to make you feel for him, rather than worry that he might be a ticking time bomb.
I’m absolutely not the kind of person who would say you can’t tell this kind of Lolita story now – in many ways, the current conversations about abuse and its legacy make it a very, very good time to tell these stories, so long as you accept they’ll differ from how they were told in the past. Josie’s retrograde qualities could be ascribed to it being pitched as a genre piece, but looking at it in the light of allegations of domestic violence made against England by his ex-girlfriend Katie Stegeman, it’s hard not to worry that England just doesn’t see enough bad qualities in Hank to make this story work. What you’re left with is a film noir that keeps deflating any possibility that its central situation is dangerous or disturbing, leaving its final twist as a bizarre hairpin turn rather than any sort of culmination. You can tell stories about bad people, but first, you have to recognise that they’re bad.