Rhianne Barreto appears in Shareby Pippa Bianco, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Share Review: A Sobering Portrait of Sexual Assault in the Digital Age

Imagine if “Eighth Grade” had been directed by Michael Haneke and you might get a sense of the vulnerability and dread of Pippa Bianco’s film.

“Share,” Pippa Bianco’s unflinching and deadly serious feature debut, is nothing short of an absolute nightmare. It’s a nightmare that will visit almost every teenager growing up in the digital age (especially girls), and a nightmare that will be made real in one form or another for more of them than we care to imagine or admit. Paced like a fugue state, rendered in the shallow focus of a shapeless dream, and set in the dark rift that modern technology has carved between real and imagined spaces, Bianco’s drama is not only a raw portrait of a sexual assault survivor, it’s also an oblique but horrifying treatise on the various ways in which the internet has made us feel entitled to other peoples’ most private experiences.

Imagine if “Eighth Grade” had been directed by Michael Haneke and you’ll begin to understand the vulnerability and dread that seep into every second of this movie, which feels like a necessary step toward understanding the anxieties of contemporary (youth) culture, if not one that’s particularly enjoyable to watch.

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“Share,” which Bianco has expanded from her remarkable — and more unsettlingly focused — 2015 short of the same name, opens with an abstract image that will only make sense to us later. A dark night sky cut up by small lines. Watery yellow lights that strobe in and out of view. It’s a fitting way to set the stage for a film that will only make sense to its protagonist in hindsight. Her name is Mandy (British newcomer Rhianne Barreto, whose compelling performance simmers with the internalized violence of a pressure cooker), she’s 16, and the first time we see her she’s face down on the grass of her parents’ lawn. She doesn’t remember how she got there; she doesn’t even notice the massive bruise scaling her lower back.

Lying in bed the next morning, Mandy’s phone starts to blow up. That kind of sudden activity is almost never good news; it’s basically the four-minute warning of the internet era, and Bianco emphasizes the piercing sound of each text so that every new message cuts in with the shrill horror of a jump-scare. There’s a 20-second video from the party Mandy went to the previous night. It’s shaky and pixelated but the image it lands on is all too clear: Mandy is once again lying face down, this time on the cold cement of someone’s (parents’) basement. She’s clearly unconscious. A crowd gathers around her body as a boy yanks down her underwear. And that’s where it ends. Whatever happened next — and however Mandy got home after that — is a mystery to her, and to us, but definitely not to everyone. Or someone.

The most striking thing about the school day that follows is how the world seems both hyper-aware of Mandy’s situation but also completely oblivious to it. Even though everybody knows that it happened, nobody else feels like it happened to them. The film’s natural, Altman-esque dialogue is an indistinguishable chorus of adolescent noise. There are at least two prominent conversations about which chain restaurant Mandy’s friends should pick for dinner (a mild diss of Papa John’s is the closest thing this movie has to a joke). The guy most prominently featured in the video laughs the whole thing off as a joke, and seems taken aback by the idea that it might be more serious than that. Mandy’s friends, on the other hand — her teammates on the tight-knit basketball squad that always seems to have her back — are shellshocked and eager to normalize things.

Things only get more complicated from there, but Mandy immediately finds herself in a strange position where everything is ambiguous except her own anxiety. The video is proof that she was the victim of a crime, but it also locates her unknown trauma on the other side of a screen, putting Mandy at a strange remove from the girl whose assault is now floating around school with the weightlessness of a rumor. In a film where much of the visual language numbingly confuses intimacy for understanding — a film that relies on extreme close-ups of Mandy’s passive face to compensate for a character who’s suffocating under her silence — Bianco finds a number of brilliant formal conceits to articulate the unreality of her protagonist’s experience. The most effective of them all might be the Haneke-inspired moment when Bianco seamlessly bleeds Mandy’s basketball practice into taped footage from a review session with her coach. It’s as if the whole world is just watching itself from a distance, and everyone is only tenuously aware of the connection between real life and its replays.

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Smart but shamed, Mandy isn’t sure how to react to the video, or to the assault it implies. On the one hand, she’s the victim of a crime, and has a basic human need to know what happened to her and who was responsible. She also feels a social responsibility to solve the mystery and stop her attacker from doing this to someone else. On the other hand, it almost feels as if this whole thing happened to someone else, and calling attention to it would only fan the flames.

The film is a glossy noir wrapped in a survivor’s moral crisis, and while Bianco backgrounds the whodunnit element after Mandy confides in her freaked out parents, that’s only because the filmmaker is less interested in the crime than she is in the way all of the other people in this story claim it for themselves. Mandy’s father (JC MacKenzie) is understandably unmoored by the news, and demands some kind of impotent, suburban justice for his daughter. Her mom (Poorna Jagganatha and JC MacKenzie) is more hurt than heated. The film’s most powerful and upsetting scene finds her privately comforting Mandy, and explaining that her husband — nor any of the other men in her life — can understand how common this kind of thing has always been. Desperate for a narrative that she’s able to control herself, Mandy appears to grow more isolated every time someone tries to help.

She’s only responsive to Dylan (a talented but miscast Charlie Plummer), the sweet-faced but seemingly braindead kid whose kindness might be a thin way of masking his crush. A botched character who’s meant to be naive but comes across as simple, Dylan is almost as unsubtle as Henry Laufer’s distractingly overbearing score. “Share” is long on dread and short on more legible or immediate emotions, and clumsy efforts to balance the scales only manage to underline why the film is often too elliptical for its own good. Bianco’s script offers less of a functional story than it does a compelling dilemma, and the movie falters whenever it tries to pretend otherwise.

But “Share” is so smart and perceptive about the way that a situation like this can snowball, and this dour slow-burn naturally becomes more intense as it builds to the only choice that Mandy has left. While one key aspect of the ending rings false, the other, more conclusive reveal provides an ingenious solution, restoring Mandy’s agency by offering her the kind of devil’s bargain that so many survivors must have to make with themselves. “Share” can be so traumatized and detached that it risks losing its grasp on reality, but few movies have so boldly confronted the complexities of sexual assault, and even fewer have had the courage to privilege a victim’s truth above the judgements she inspires.

Grade: B

“Share” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Festival. It will air on HBO later this year.

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