Asking for It is a cheap and muddled affront to the women it seeks to foreground.
Asking for It, the debut feature from writer-director Eamon O’Rourke, is yet the latest in a line of female-led actioners wherein a group of badass women seek vengeance on the toxic males who seek to rob them of their agency. That we have seen a resurgence in this particular subgenre isn’t exactly surprising, considering the far-reaching effects of the #MeToo movement. Yet one thing that sets these recent films apart from their pure genre counterparts is a suffocating didacticism that renders them also exclusively polemical at the expense of much actual entertainment. It would be fair to argue that subtlety has never been a particular strong suit or ambition for this lineage of films, going back to the exploitation flicks of the ‘70s, where the likes of I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left reigned supreme. But those films were at least consistent in their presentation of the horrors at hand, the messaging as blunt as the images were nauseatingly savage, served up on rough-grain 16mm film stock for maximum, grimy discomfort.
Asking For It, then, suffers from the same problem as 2020’s Promising Young Woman — not to mention countless others from this new breed — in that it desperately wants to straddle the line between the exploitative and authentic, with predictably disastrous results. At least the ladies of Asking for It have the balls to actually follow through with their threats, which is more than can be said for the toothless Woman. Kiersey Clemons stars as Joey, a happy-go-lucky waitress in Anytown, USA, whose life comes crashing down after being sexually assaulted by a childhood friend (Casey Cott). As her optimism curdles into crushing depression, Joey happens upon Regina (Alexandra Shipp), a diner patron and all-around bad bitch who introduces her to the group of extremists she calls family, an all-female brigade who have made it their mission to exact revenge upon those men who have escaped punishment for their heinous crimes against womanhood. When we meet the cadre, they currently have their sights set on one Mark Vanderhill (Ezra Miller), a Far-Right incel who has started a “revolution” that goes by the name of Men’s First Movement, in which straight white males are encouraged to take back what is rightfully theirs and put women and minorities back in their place. What follows this provocative setup is a tale of empowerment that rings profoundly hollow regardless of good intentions, and a lot of that comes down to this being yet another film about disenfranchisement written and directed by a white male, because of course it is. Asking for It desperately wants to both have and eat its cake, serving up countless scenes of capable young women beating the shit out of their deserving male counterparts, while also delivering undercooked melodramatic pap that it tries to pass off as poetic and insightful and which creates an utterly dissonant tenor for the film.
Clemmons, for her part, successfully channels both the doubt and rage that fuel her character’s actions, but her emotionally authentic performance is at odds with the caricatures that surround her, none more so than Vanessa Hudgens, who is basically trotting out her Spring Breakers character for the umpteenth time, all heavy black mascara and facial piercings. When Hudgens breaks out a strap-on dildo and threatens to rape Miller, Clemmons’ objections come across as particularly lame, a cheap bid at profundity in which the morality of our heroes is to be questioned. Are their actions justifiable, or are they no better than their male aggressors? That this follows a scene in which our protagonists hold hostage a large group of men and unleash a chemical agent that makes them both permanently sterile and impotent is…certainly ironic. Every male here is also portrayed as so cartoonishly misogynistic and racist that no punishment presented seems severe enough, and does nothing to acknowledge any male that doesn’t register at an 11 on the toxicity scale; the messaging, in other words, is both muddled and problematic. All of these transgressions might be a tad more tolerable — though not much — had O’Rourke not chosen a filmmaking style reminiscent of a particularly hyperactive late-‘90s/early-aughts music video, with overcaffeinated editing the name of the game, goosed by freeze frames, speed ramping, and an overreliance on rapid-fire cuts of still photographs that brings to mind 1999’s Run Lola Run — it all only serves to underline the film’s hoary ideals of “hip.” If O’Rourke truly wanted to highlight the fragile emotional state of his protagonists, perhaps he should’ve included at least one shot that lasted longer than two seconds. Casting the nonbinary Miller as the embodiment of toxic masculinity is an intriguing choice, but one that pays zero dividends, an act of empty novelty that sees no narrative or thematic excavation. The rest of the cast is equally wasted, with the likes of Radha Mitchell and Gabourey Sidibe popping in for a few scenes then quickly exiting for reasons entirely understandable, while Clemmons and Shipp do their best to find what little humanity can be wrung from their woefully underwritten characters. Asking for It actually ends with its best and most powerful scene, hinting at the film that could have been if O’Rourke had presented a more clarified vision of feminism than what could be found in a 1999 issue of Maxim. The result is a half-assed tale of female badassery that feels about as empowering as a tampon commercial.