What can one say about “The Perfection,” a film that repeatedly turns on a dime, constantly subverting expectations, swapping subgenres and scrolling back and forth in time to reveal what was previously hidden? Is it an erotic thriller, a contagion film, a revenge movie, a slasher flick? Is it art or exploitation? It’s all of the above.
One thing is for certain: The Allison Williams Scream Queen evolution is one of the most exciting current trends in cinema. After her brilliantly basic, benevolently brutal performance in “Get Out,” and now with “The Perfection,” where she continually shifts between victim and villain, it’s obvious that the “Girls” actress has incredibly daring taste when it comes to her film roles. What makes her so effective in these complex roles is the way that Williams’ preppy, pleasant-seeming demeanor— the wide, white surfaces of her teeth, the doe eyes, the dimples — can shape-shift between sinister or sweet, depending on the context. Sometimes it’s both.
Directed by Richard Shepard and written by Shepard, Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, “The Perfection” is a film about trauma, jealousy and the trap of perfectionism. Williams stars as Charlotte, to whom we’re introduced in small, disjointed moments and memories: her mother on her death bed surrounded by orange pill bottles; at age 14, packed up and leaving a stately home with her cello in tow, glimpsing the new girl taking her place; a practiced phone call, her voice carefully modulating a casual tone, asking her former cello teacher to meet up.
Charlotte makes her way to Shanghai to visit the teacher, Anton (Steven Weber), and his wife, Paloma (Alaina Huffman), at a contest for placement at Bachoff, the elite cello school she once attended. At the competition, Charlotte encounters a star cellist, Lizzie (Logan Browning), who has the fame and accolades she had to sacrifice when her mother got sick. The two women collide in this charged atmosphere, instantly understanding each other and what they went through as dedicated elite cellists. The tension between them is palpable — are they going to fight or kiss? Perhaps both?
It would be unfair to share the shocking twists and turns that unfurl in long waves, sweeping the footing right out from under you. Then Shepard carefully rewinds, showing us what we didn’t see before, explaining the mechanics of how everything ended up in such a dark and demented place.
While Williams’ Charlotte is poised perfection personified, Browning’s Lizzie is her frank, feisty and feral foil. Lizzie is all id, Charlotte is the superego, and together, they make quite a pair. Browning is a revelation in “The Perfection,” showing new, unexpected colors and facets of her range. Weber is also note-perfect as their sophisticated and demanding cello instructor.
“The Perfection” is Shepard’s eighth feature film, and shows him working in a vastly different arena than his indie comedies of the ’90s or light crime capers “The Matador” and “Dom Hemingway.” A veteran of episodic TV (“Ugly Betty,” “Girls”), Shepard brings a crisp, polished style that belies the truly twisted events that are about to unfold. Like leading lady Williams, the exterior of “The Perfection” is flawless, covering up the darkness that lies beneath. The wild ride in store is both supremely disturbing and unpredictable. But rendered with such care, skill and sheer glee — it’s utterly divine.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Available May 24 on Netflix