It may be a hasty judgment, but as soon as we see a young woman painting on a canvas, smoking a cigarette positioned in the corner of her mouth in a series of close-ups — and this just as the opening credits begin to roll in yellow-colored letters across the film’s black-and-white images — it’s quite obvious that the Toronto-born, actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Carter’s directorial feature, In Her Name, is one boasting a sharp, curious eye for visual flair. The film follows the story of two estranged, fiercely incompatible siblings: Fiona (Ciera Danielle) is a dark-haired, timid housewife and mother who, after roughly a decade of radio silence, travels from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to visit her sister Freya (Erin Hammond), a blonde, free-spirited hipster who paints and lives with their terminally-ill artist father, Marv (Philippe Caland) in a family house that Fiona intends to sell before the bank reclaims it. It’s an unexpected visit, one that over the course of a few days hits all the expected beats for a film of this ilk, with surprising events and revelations forecasting a story that leads to the mutual realization of sisterly love and a strengthening of bonds between Fiona and Freya. But it’s in the way that Sarah Carter refashions this familiar narrative into a heartfelt, quirky (but on the right side of) comedy of bittersweet wit and charm that distinguishes it from the indie crowd, riding its summery vibes and small delights to captivating ends.
In relying less on common plot dramas and instead lending the film’s circumstances and emotional content a leisurely authenticity, Carter is able to more meaningfully mine ideas of femininity — rather than opting for any clichéd sociopolitical handling — imbuing her film (semi-inspired by the uncompromising character and art of Lebanese artist Huguette Caland) with tenderness and considerable dimension. Although predominantly composed of slick, beautiful black-and-white visuals, which could easily manifest as overly mannered and academic, Carter and DP Iain Trimble infuse a certain dynamism into the overall aesthetic, realizing a looseness that keeps this from too-studied territory. In Her Name’s expressive lighting, frequent unusual camera angles, and occasional superimpositions are reminiscent of Hollywood films of the ‘40s, but the film is also noticeably influenced by the early works of independent filmmakers like Shirley Clarke and John Cassavetes. And elsewhere, during a picnic scene where Peter (James Aaron Oliver), one of Marv’s close confidantes, seduces Fiona, it’s tough not to see the sequence as a direct nod to Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country. All these underlying cinephilic touchstones are cut through with something of the counterculture spirit of 1970s New Hollywood, rendering Carter’s portrayal of this hip, new-age subculture of L.A. and its art scene — both appreciated and sent up a bit here — as a West Coast half-sister Frances Ha, an amusing and curious film that offers plenty of exploratory potential for its viewers.
In tackling a veritable smorgasbord of modern-day issues, including womanhood, familial bonds and dysfunctions, (in)fidelity, freedom of individual and artistic expression — best glimpsed in a hilarious, drunken heart-to-heart between the sisters — as well as embracing more the existential concerns of death, identity, and spirituality, Carter’s In Her Name proves to be a peculiar but affectionate cringe-dramedy, simultaneously light-hearted and thoughtful, gentle and provocative. It’s a fine line to walk, but the director manages the balance, and its unique magnetism makes a good deal of sense: after all, the film is conceived of as a portrait of antipodal energies. Beyond the explicit contrasts between Fiona and Freya — the natural, delightful performances from Danielle and Hammond are no small factor in the film’s success — it’s not hard to find other polarized forces made study of here: women and men, peace and tension, the old and the new. Indeed, this last one is essential to the film’s aesthetic, a marriage of vintage and the voguish style, situated somewhere between the serene calm of its fixed compositions and the relatively more complex camera movements at play elsewhere; see too the interplay between environmental (picnic) and architectural spaces (family home, art galleries), the images rich and ambiance minimalist. It’s on the strength of these elements that Carter’s In Her Name proves such a confident, successful debut, a film that both preaches and practices the freedom of artistic expression.
Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 5.