Beauty Marks

By Gina Hackett | Drama
A young girl worries about leaving her mother with a handsome drifter.

Ritchie is a young teen who works with her mother cleaning motels -- a sometimes unpleasant task that exposes her sometimes to the literal underside of life. But most of the time, it's uneventful and boring.

One day, though, a man arrives at the motel with his daughter Zadie. Ritchie is instantly fascinated by the other young woman, who is mysterious and tense. And her mother immediately seems attracted to the man. When the adults send the two young girls to hang out together, Ritchie isn't sure what to make of Zadie. But when Zadie offers an offhand revelation about her dad, Ritchie begins to wonder if she should have left her mother in the first place.

Directed by Gina Hackett from a script co-written by Waleed Alqahtani, this short drama is both self-assured and supremely enigmatic, never allowing viewers to settle into its characters and their "truths." Instead, perceptions and allegiances shift throughout, using suspense and tension in unique ways that reveal character -- and the cracks in a disquieting reality.

In many ways, the narrative could be a thriller, with its implied threats, shifty characters and haunting sense of isolation. Instead, the stylistic approach favors taut minimalism, beginning with naturalistic visuals. The characters are delineated with precise economy, with fragments of reactions and gestures slowly adding up before re-shifting in configuration.

As these pieces begin to take their place in the larger shape of the narrative, Ritchie emerges more strongly when Zadie arrives on the scene with her sinister yet intriguing father. Actor Anna Cobb plays Zadie with the insouciant bravado of a certain stripe of rebellious teenage girl, but we also see that this toughness is covering up for something.

As Ritchie, actor Lianna Morra is the younger, more naive girl fascinated by Zadie. She -- and we as viewers -- never know quite what to think of Zadie. Is she "for real"? Can Ritchie trust her? Their scenes together have tension and suspense, and we never quite know how things will play out. Amidst this unpredictability, Zadie casually reveals a loaded piece of information. If Ritchie believes her, it offers a major moral quandary, as well as a realization that her mother may be in danger.

Subversive and compelling, "Beauty Mark" excels in exerting a quietly sinister power through its storytelling. It leverages the potential unreliability of some of its characters to create an undertow of mystery and danger, made all the more perilous because high stakes are tied to what is true and what isn't. A conventional thriller usually exerts its power through clearly defined forces acting in opposition to the main character. But the danger is omnipresent yet suffused in "Beauty Marks," almost permeating the air and atmosphere around Ritchie, Zadie and the mother -- creating a sense of a minefield of a world for these vulnerable young women to navigate and survive.

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