A girl has gone missing in the restless and surreal “Knives and Skin,” but filmmaker Jennifer Reeder is on the hunt for more than just one lost and searching soul in this bold arthouse genre-bender. Upending horror conventions with a wry, idiosyncratic eye, “Knives and Skin” opens and closes on the teenager in question — blonde and bespectacled band nerd Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), who joins a jock classmate at the edge of a small town one night for a clandestine hookup but quickly changes her mind.
The clash that ensues is the first of the film’s probes of control, gender and sexuality. The denizens of the fictional town Big River, a place surrounded by rock quarries and oil refineries and misted in Reeder’s enthrallingly Midwestern mystique, are enfolded into an increasingly existential mystery: Where is Carolyn?
Whether she’s alive or dead after that fateful night isn’t actually so much the concern of “Knives and Skin” as are the ways her disappearance disrupts the lives of everyone who knew her. But as the days march on, the missing girl’s distraught mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt, deftly tone-hopping with each turn of the screw), is the only one sharply unraveling over her absence; everyone else goes back to drowning in their own agita. And as frenemies and neighbors canvas the fictional community of Big River, the film’s focus follows suit, drifting in and out of the private dysfunctions and existential battles that hang over the town like a shroud.
There’s the acerbic side hustler (Grace Smith) with ambitions beyond her hometown, her out-of-work father (Tim Hopper) who masquerades as a sad clown, and the pregnant waitress (Kate Arrington) he’s having an affair with who aches for the love of her distant sheriff husband (James Vincent Meredith). Elsewhere, a cheerleader (Kayla Carter) feels the sweet spark of a queer romance and an iconoclast young artist (standout Ireon Roach) hides her own fears and desires behind a facade of confidence.
Awash in Christopher Rejano’s neon-hued cinematography and punctuated by Nick Zinner’s eerie synth soundscapes, Reeder’s meandering tale is a fever dream of ideas. It centers a kind of radical and rebellious girlhood, and effortless inclusivity, seldom seen onscreen. Undulating at its own unique rhythm from the start, Reeder’s film weaves a mesmerizing tapestry — mundane middle Americana meets magical realism — in a town where the grown-ups are most certainly not alright, but the teens at least offer a glimmer of hope for the future.
The whiff of a distinctly Lynchian vibe might be the most obvious influence. But Reeder’s references run deep and varied, citing icons including Angela Davis and Yoko Ono, whose names one young heroine emblazons by hand onto her T-shirt, and Chantal Akerman, whose 1975 domestic icon Jeanne Dielman gets a kindred spirit in one meatloaf-making moment of maternal dissatisfaction.
But it’s the haunting sound of the film’s teen girls, singing a cappella covers of the Go-Gos, Cyndi Lauper and other ’80s pop tunes in their school chorus, that resonates with a synchronized and surprising perfection of its own. In their harmonies lies a secret language, an elegy and communion that envelops even the lost Carolyn, whose presence lingers as life goes on.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: Arena Cinelounge Sunset