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Film review - Songs She Wrote About People She Knows

Songs She Wrote About People She Knows is an odd little item that falls into more or less the same category as films like Clerks or Napoleon Dynamite: comedies which derive their humour from their slightly surreal image of banal reality, the magnified details of ordinary life, as much as from their story or dialogue.

Viewers tend to be divided into categories of those who find films as the aforementioned titles hilarious, and those who find them dull and pointless; but Songs She Wrote About People She Knows was well received by audiences at the various film festivals where it was presented before general release.

An absurd, deadpan, truly original comedy, Songs She Wrote… follows the adventures of Carol (Arabella Bushnell), a repressed, unhappy woman who is mistreated by her boss, put upon by her neighbours, and dismissed by her own mother. She joins a music therapy group, which recommends that people who are unable to express their emotions use music as a way of freeing themselves, singing their complaints, troubles, and feelings rather than speaking them.

Carol is galvanized by this concept, and impulsively phones her odious neighbour and sings a sweet, melodious song about her homicidal rage onto the neighbour’s answering machine, resulting in threats of police action. Facing the neighbour’s outrage at receiving musical fantasies of burning her alive, Carol is bemused at the reaction: “I was just expressing myself. I wouldn’t really do that,” she assures the complainant blandly. But a similar musical message telephoned to her boss, Dave (“You’re an asshole, Dave…” set to a dreamy torch song melody) completely changes Carol’s life, taking her on an improbable, initially aimless, musical adventure.

It appears that Carol’s unreserved musical honesty has a powerful effect on others. The police sent to investigate her alleged death threats end up performing a two man gospel music piece for her instead. Her message to her boss results in his undergoing a severe midlife crisis and resigning from his job to become a professional musician, despite having no talent and no recent experience with music. Carol, dragged unwillingly along with Dave by a series of related events, effortlessly wins new followers wherever she goes, ending in an offer of free recording studio time, an album, and an eventual reconciliation, of sorts, with the various people she resents and sings lovely homicidal messages to.

Rarely has a film made better use of its obviously low budget. The clothing and interior decor are precisely the slightly inadequate style found everywhere in real life, but which seems incongruous on film. Carol, the centre of the action, is a glum Everywoman: a little plain, a little dumpy, her carefully chosen clothing falling just short of stylish. She faces even the most bizarre and unexpected events with an almost unshakable ennui, her default emotion dull annoyance even as her familiar life disintegrates around her. The supporting characters are parodies of common human types, all recognizable for their various forms of foolishness and exasperating qualities – particularly the obliviously self-centred Dave, who accompanies Carol through most of the film.

The humour is dry, but the combination of Carol’s detached hostility for everyone and everything, the contrasting emotions and pretences of the people around her, and Carol’s unsuitably sweet musical expressions of rage and contempt, all combine in a strangely humorous way.

Monica Reid.