Jennifer Reeder’s ‘Knives and Skin’ Is a Feminist Film Centered Around a Dead Girl

In her latest feature “Knives and Skin,” Chicago-based filmmaker Jennifer Reeder continues to explore themes that she has tackled in her previous works, trauma and the idea that coming-of-age is a lifelong process. The seed of the idea came along when she was driving down a two-lane road in Ohio and envisioned three goth/punk teen girls walking along the road.

“I thought it was a dynamic visual analogy for someone at a crossroads in their life,” Reeder recalled to Entertainment Voice. “Someone who just feels like a misfit in their environment. I started to think about these three girls and what is about to happen to them that will change their lives forever. ‘Knives and Skin’ sorta spiraled out from there.”

The life-changing event in ‘Knives and Skin” is the disappearance of Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), a marching band girl who dies after a date gone bad with a football player, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin). Reeder has only a short window to make us care about Carolyn, and this she accomplishes, as the young woman has an endearing headstrong quality about her. She even goes ahead and carves her first initial into forehead of the guy with whom she wants to hook up.

“I wanted Carolyn to be kind of a willful character, to have this sorta sassy self-assuredness,” explained Reeder. “In a way, she’s marking her territory, putting a ‘C’ into his head. The wound, which glows for a moment — maybe she has some magical powers that are never quite explained, which I’m fine with — it never heals up over the course of the film, which felt significant. Her spirit sort of lives on in this cut in his forehead that won’t heal up.”

It was no easy task to make a feminist film centered around a dead girl, but Reeder accomplishes this partly by using magical realism to make Carolyn an active dead girl, one who rolls around and responds to music. She spoke about how she set out to take on the problematic trope of the dead girl and turn it around. “Carolyn Harper is dead, but it’s as though she won’t stay dead. That’s not to say that she’s a zombie or a ghost. She just has will and agency, even in death, which felt like a way to empower her.”

Adding to the empowerment theme of “Knives and Skin” is the frank dialogue around taboo subjects like menstruation. Andy’s sister Joanna (Grace Smith) speaks openly about period blood and even runs a small business selling her mother’s soiled underwear. There’s also a romantic subplot involving two young women, Laurel (Kayla Carter) and Colleen (Emma Ladji), who are very comfortable with their vaginas. Later, there’s a striking scene in which a grieving female character finds release through masturbation. Reeder explained why is was important for her to breakdown taboos in a society where women are often objectified in films and in print. 

“Our images are co-opted and sold back to ourselves in a way that doesn’t always seem realistic. We’re a culture that’s obsessed with youth and beauty; we’re a culture that’s obsessed with female bodies, but we don’t talk about female desire… It’s the most normal things, female desire, female bodies. It’s important to be a female writer and director and say, ‘Okay, here’s what female bodies do.’”

As horrible as Carolyn’s death is, it emboldens the other characters, particularly the young women, including Laurel, who stands up to Andy, her boyfriend, and his toxic masculinity. The tragedy also brings the high schoolers together, especially the girls who used to all be friends until trivial teen drama divided them.

“I also didn’t want to make a film about a dead girl where everyone just wallows in their worry,” said Reeder. “I wanted Carolyn’s death to be the catalyst that helped everybody make the changes in their lives that need to make. Her death is not in vain. Her death brings these girls back together.”

Understandably, Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), has her life turned upside down when her daughter disappears, but she acts out in ways one wouldn’t expect. Initially, she is in denial, and at one point she even bemoans the fact that Carolyn has missed three band practices. But as time goes on, she becomes more and more desperate, and in one powerful scene she is even shown sniffing out her child’s scent in Andy’s car.

“I wanted to make her grief unexpected, because grief is very personal, just like desire,” explained Reeder. “You can’t tell how someone will react to a tragic situation until it really happens. For me, it seems like so many grieving mothers in so many films are just so inauthentic and typical. They just fall to their knees crying, and then don’t get out of bed for days, or something like that…. I wanted to lean into the idea that a grieving mother kind of becomes like an animal, and she would be using all of her instincts to find her child.”

Then there’s Renee (Kate Arrington), the mother of Laurel and Jesse (Robert T. Cunningham), the school mascot, and wife of Doug Darlington (James Vincent Meredith), the chief of police. Heavily pregnant with a baby her husband isn’t excited about, Renee finds an outlet in making glittery missing person posters for Carolyn and engaging in an affair with Dan (Tim Hopper), Joanna and Andy’s unemployed clown father. While in a lesser film she would be an object of ridicule, Reeder and Arrington make her one of the most sympathetic characters. In a moving scenes towards the end, she finally asks her family for help. Reeder opened up Renee, whose brittle housewife exterior is used to hide a softness and fragility. 

“I think that happens to a lot of women who feel ambivalent about motherhood, or don’t feel like they are the mothers they thought that they would be, or the partners they thought they would be, or maybe they’re just women who don’t think that their lives have turned out in the way that they anticipated. They feel very afraid to admit that to anyone. It’s much easier to appear as though you’re the kind of perfect housewife and they perfect crafter and the perfect mother, when in fact you’re really just coming apart on the inside.”

Music plays an important role in “Knives and Skin,” and not only because Lisa is the school’s choir director. Reeder selected ‘80s new wave classics like “Our Lips are Sealed,” “I Melt With You,” and “Blue Monday,” infectious pop songs that had an impact in her own life, and turned them into haunting acapella numbers..

“I knew that those songs in particular, if we rearranged them to be lamentations, lullabies, and maybe even a eulogy, they add a lot of pathos. Those scenes would carry a lot of emotional weight, and they would also remind the audience that within the world of ‘Knives and Skin,’ where there’s a lot of mistake making, and there’s a lot of brutality, there’s also room for harmony, synchronicity, and beauty. Those scenes carry a lot of emotional weight, but they’re also about voices singing together in harmony, which is a beautiful analogy for the need for human connection.”

Knives and Skin” opens Dec. 6 in select theaters