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Review: A searching teen gets under the concealer in ‘Make Up’

Molly Windsor stars in "Make Up."
Seeing the real you at last: A teen (Molly Windsor) makes some important discoveries at a seaside resort in “Make Up.”
(Mutiny Pictures)

The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

In the moody British indie “Make Up,” a teen trying to figure out whether her boyfriend is cheating makes a life-changing discovery. It’s an insightful, deeply felt film that lets us in on a personal evolution.

Ruth (Molly Windsor) comes to join longtime beau Tom (Joseph Quinn) at the Cornwall seaside resort where he works winters. Almost immediately, she finds evidence of what might be an affair. As she becomes preoccupied with finding the truth, somewhat disoriented and far from home, she meets the community’s resident outsider: devil-may-care knockout Jade (Stefanie Martini). Ruth has some fears to face and some growing up to do, and she may be forced to do both in short order.

“Make Up” is a richly realized coming-of-age drama that for some reason is being billed in its promotional materials as a “thriller.” I can’t imagine why. There’s a mystery that drives much of the action, but the point seems to be in part that that mystery ultimately doesn’t matter. It’s the deeper discoveries about herself that usher Ruth to a new place, not some conspiracy or ghost story or whatever.

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It’s an extremely promising feature debut by writer-director Claire Oakley. She begins by dropping us into the awkward discomfort Ruth feels on arriving at this remote, largely shut-down mini town. Ruth is 18 and has been with Tom for three years, but she clearly hasn’t grown into herself. When offered a makeover, she says something like, “When I put on makeup, I look like a kid wearing makeup.”

Oakley establishes a strong sense of place: We feel the temperature, the wind, the rain when it comes. That ocean they swim in looks cold. Without showy movie magic, she shares the experience of being there with Ruth in this removed, “other” location; it’s the kind of distance from the things you know that makes it feel like anything can happen, especially for a teen. We feel how unmoored Ruth is when the possibility of Tom’s cheating arises. We feel the magnetic draw of Jade: a few years older, confident, independent, gorgeous. Jade (a memorable performance by Martini) is the kind of ballsy outsider who probably chose her own name and makes it work for her. Windsor’s Ruth vividly changes before our eyes. Reactant, catalyst: All the ingredients are there for personal transformation.

Oakley pulls a few tricks too. As Ruth obsessively hunts a red-haired woman, the tall grass by the water takes on a reddish hue. Ruth’s eyes can’t stop finding the red streaks in Jade’s hair. The filmmaker yanks us out of one particularly interesting moment; next, we see Ruth’s behavior is changed. It takes a while for us to be reminded of that incident and learn what struck the flint.

“Make Up” feels like a real journey of discovery as Ruth goes from one view of the world to an obsessive quest that might derail that view to an unexpected destination. It’s not a sense of danger or a ticking clock that makes the film even vaguely fit the “thriller” description; it’s the slow rollercoaster rise and sudden plunge of Ruth’s understanding of herself.

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‘Make Up’

Rated: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: At Virtual Cinemas on Nov. 13 and at the Vista 15 (Vista Village), Del Mar 11 (Del Mar), La Costa Town Square 8 (La Costa) and Westlake Village 8 (Westlake Village) on Nov. 13.


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