As it was first reported by the New York Times and then seized upon by social observers, Kitty Genovese's 1964 murder became a cultural touchstone, a condemnation of 20th-century urban apathy. Now it's the inspiration for writer-director Puk Grasten's "37," a drama that plays out as an overdetermined thesis, with Genovese herself (Christina Brucato) a footnote to the darkly stylized plunge into lives of quiet desperation.
The idea that 37 or 38 neighbors had watched the young woman's attack without lifting a finger to stop it has long since been debunked; the far more complex reality is explored in "The Witness," a superb documentary released earlier this year. Focusing on three families, Grasten's film imagines what might have prevented people from helping Genovese on that March night in Kew Gardens, Queens.
Location shooting and evocative pop-culture excavation, with an emphasis on advertising jingles, give the film a heightened layer of period detail, filtered through a quasi-Lynchian atmosphere of nightmarish decay. Grasten similarly exaggerates her characters' estrangement, creating domestic horror tableaus of lies, casseroles and magical thinking.
A troubled girl (Sophia Lillis) longs for her mother; a punishing housewife (Maria Dizzia) lives in denial. There are intimations of nuclear dread and the not-distant Holocaust, while the neighborhood's newly arrived black couple (Samira Wiley, Michael Potts) argue pointedly over how to raise their son in a white world. As Grasten strains to connect the unhappy lot to the Genovese myth, convincing drama flickers out of reach.
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills