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(Credit: TIFF)

Film

'Violet' Review: Olivia Munn stars in Justine Bateman's directional debut

'Violet' - Justine Bateman
2.5

Ambitious personal drama Violet is a film that is all but defined by the cleverness and novelty of its central technique. Its unique way of telling a story, one that would only be possible through film, can be illuminating; but it can just as often draw attention away from the actual characters and plot. Successful television actor Justine Bateman has branched out into filmmaking, turning out a documentary and several short films leading to this, her first feature, which she wrote and produced as well as directed. In what is undeniably a film with a message, Bateman introduced Violet at the Toronto Film Festival by saying: “If you’ve ever made a fear-based decision in your life that you feel took you off track, this film is for you. It’s basically a map to the bridge to get from where you’re at now, to where you’re supposed to be.” 

Olivia Munn gives an expressive, nicely controlled performance as the title character, an executive at a film production company, dealing with both professional dissatisfaction and personal dilemmas, and driven by the fear and insecurity referenced by Bateman. Rather than have Violet either explain her confusion and insecurity through dialogue, or convey it wordlessly through her actions, it is revealed through dual on-screen techniques. Violet goes through her day as if all is well. Her anxieties, and the critical inner voice that continually holds her back, are shown only to the audience. Whenever Violet speaks, the subtext or unspoken addition to her statement appears on the screen as script; for example, her mental reassurances, ‘I’m okay. I’m okay‘ and the plaintive question ‘Why can’t I just be happy?’ appear and then fade, as Violet tries to encourage and advise herself. Meanwhile, Violet’s deep-seated insecurities take the form of a literal inner voice (Justin Theroux), which constantly belittles her and discourages her from making real changes in her life. The voice, audible only to the audience, is a dark entity, interrupting Violet’s meals to tell her she “looks like a pig”, frightening her away from taking charge at work, warning her against seeking out a positive relationship, and calling up her insecurities at the most inconvenient times. 

The plot follows Violet’s painful progress from debilitating self-doubt to confidence, leading her to finally take risks, stand up for herself at work, and take charge of her personal life, as the added features of visible script and audible inner voice provide context and guideposts to her development. There is also a divergence into Violet’s history and family life which explains a great deal about where her insecurities originated. 

During a panel discussion at the Toronto Film Festival, director Justine Bateman provided background on the film’s development. “Years ago, I made a lot of fear-based decisions, and I felt off-track,” she explained. “When I worked through that experience, I wanted to pass along some of the ways I worked through it. Actors in the film are representative of different kinds of people in our lives. It’s designed to be an immersive experience for the audience, so they can watch it and say, ‘oh, I’ve got that kind of person in my life!'”.

Was there a reason the lead character was given a job in the film industry? “The reason it’s set in Hollywood,” Bateman explained, “Is, I wanted to eliminate all the variables that someone could, consciously or unconsciously, point to and say, ‘Well, that’s why she feels insecure – she doesn’t have a good job’, or ‘she lives in a town that’s dark and noisy.’ No – she’s great looking; she’s got her health; she has nice friends; she has a nice job; she lives in a city that many people want to live in; no, it’s just what’s going on here [in her head]. So people might say, things are fine in my life, too, but I have this same thing; that way the negative thoughts can’t double down on you, tell you everything’s fine, what’s your problem? They can see that Violet works through that, even though everything around her is fine.”

It’s a possibility that the script also touches on, as Violet has trouble finding sympathy from friends, who can’t see any reasonable cause for insecurity. A member of the cast, Erica Ash, who plays Violet’s self-assured friend Lyla, commented: “The Lyla character is a friend who has a completely different experience – but it doesn’t make her any less of a friend.” Ash sees Lyla as “a great juxtaposition to the character of Violet,” serving to give her a friend who “looks like she has it together – and actually does” – to give Violet the chance “to deal with all that turmoil going on in her head, and bounce it off the wall of someone who’s solid.”

What would ordinarily be a bland, uneventful plot in which Violet makes minor improvements to her work and personal life, becomes fairly action-packed because we see the machinery behind it all. It is easy to empathise with Violet’s struggles and triumphs. This is offset by a tendency to use stereotyped characters which fall into useful categories: the overbearing boss, the horribly dysfunctional relatives, the bad boyfriend, and the irreproachably nice guy (Luke Bracey) Violet has put firmly in the friend zone because, her inner voice tells her, he’s not a suitable partner. Still, even these choices were made for a reason other than utility.

Actor Tom Stashwick, who appears in the film, suggested that the unusual technique employed in Violet expands to take in the entire cast; that because we see Violet’s insecurities and inner demons on screen, we can reconsider the bad or unkind actions of other characters, what is behind it, what ‘inner voice’ is making them act this way. Director Bateman agreed, pointing to the character Tom Gaines (Dennis Boutsikaris of Better Call Saul), Violet’s sarcastic, unsupportive boss.

In Bateman’s view, the character “needs to attach himself to whatever other people value. He doesn’t feel valued, so he looks at what other people value, and attaches himself to that. People value Violet: he attaches himself to her. People value architecture, so he makes sure his office is in an architecturally significant building.” The most obnoxious characters, she suggests, may be compensating for their own fears and insecurities. Actor Zach Gordon, who plays Violet’s rude, ambitious colleague, Bradley, notes that the director helped him solidify the role by suggesting Bradley’s key internal phrase was ‘I’m the boss!’. It is mainly this attention to character that saves Violet from becoming tedious, and keeps the title character’s adventures interesting. The film depends on a gimmick – adventurous and fun – but a gimmick all the same. Still, it keeps the audience’s interest, above all, because the film has presented an individual almost every viewer, at some level, can identify with and understand.