Film Review: Alia Shawkat Delivers a Truly Haunting Performance in Paint It Black

Photograph courtesy of Imagination Worldwide

Making the transition from acting to directing is Amber Tamblyn, working from a book by Janet Fitch concerning Josie (Alia Shawkat), a young woman trying to cope with the sudden death of her boyfriend Michael (Rhys Wakefield) while deflecting the overwhelming grief of his mother, Meredith (Janet McTeer), a famed concert pianist whose unstable personality may have indirectly contributed to Michael’s death.

Tamblyn shows a confident hand at directing the difficult and emotionally complex material, while drawing out a truly haunting performance by Shawkat, whose character goes through a range of reactions and behaviors as a result of Michael’s death. She turns to his father, Cal (Alfred Molina), who had a bad breakup with Meredith years earlier. And even her best friend Pen (Emily Rios) isn’t much help when Josie tries to escape her pain with excessive partying. But since Meredith blames Josie for her son’s death, the two engage in a strange and often terrible battle of wits to see who can grieve the most.

To send things even deeper into a pit of despair, at one point the pair strike an unstable peace, with Josie moving into Meredith’s spacious home so that Meredith can mother her the way she did her son. Paint It Black moves from almost comically outrageous to deeply tormented, without feeling unbalanced or tonally schizophrenic. Tamblyn transitions from one moment to the next in a way that doesn’t feel jarring but still manages to rattle us. She does a strong job of making it clear what each woman is feeling from their unique perspective, attempting to find common ground between them while never missing a chance to exploit their differences to heighten the dramatic impact. This one is all sorts of messed up, but it manages to amount to something substantive in the process.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.