Written and directed by Amanda Kramer, Ladyworld depicts a birthday party gone frightfully wrong: a group of teenage girls end up trapped underground after an earthquake. They must figure out how to survive and find their way out, all the while battling the urge to descend into chaos and insanity. Ladyworld is artistic and experimental; it manages to be totally creepy without using any of horror movies’ traditional methods of inducing fear. (JRL: 3.5/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Julia Lasker
We are thrown into Ladyworld in confusion: first, a dark screen with chaotic bangs and screaming, then a teenage girl in a grey sweatshirt and overalls rising from the ground in bewilderment. She’s joined by a trembling, meek-looking blonde with an off-putting antique doll whose frizzy curls match hers, and the girls poke around the quiet house. They determine that the house has sunken underground after an earthquake, and all exits are blocked. Some other young women emerge from the ashes to join them; this had been a birthday party before the unexpected setback.
Gathered around a table at the first of many “meetings”, the girls choose the level-headed and outspoken Olivia (Ariela Barer) for their leader, but the power-hungry Piper (Annalise Basso), does not approve. Still, Olivia accepts her position and assigns jobs to everyone, if not to actually save themselves than at least to feel like they’re trying.
But as cabin fever intensifies and Olivia’s survival plan feels more and more useless, chaos ensues. The food and water run out. They all start to smell. Eden (Atheena Frizzell), trembling, reveals that there’s a man hiding in the basement. Whether or not this is true, a mixture of terror and fascination drives the girls closer to insanity. Piper gathers a cult-like following of a few of the girls, and Olivia must fight to keep the group unified, to keep everyone’s heads on straight, and most importantly to break free of the increasingly-torturous underground mansion.
Young girls in dresses and makeup acting vulgarly and violently is an unsettling juxtaposition. Many elements of the film add to this uncomfortable contrast to make a film that is wholeheartedly disturbing without ever showing anything outright “scary”. The score, for example, has no instruments and is just the voices of girls making meaningless noises, sometimes singing and sometimes not. It’s almost music but isn’t, just as this is almost a civilized girls’ birthday party but certainly isn’t. Carson Stern and Tania Becker, the makeup and hair designers respectively, do an excellent job of mirroring the girls’ descent into insanity: regal-looking red lips, pale foundation and updos devolve into ugly smears and frizzy mops of hair.
Unfortunately, the compelling elements of Ladyworld like those aforementioned are not accompanied by an equally successful plot. It reads more like an experimental video you’d find playing on loop in a modern art museum than a fully fleshed-out narrative film. While Ladyworld is artistically interesting, it doesn’t communicate the messages it has the potential to communicate. The man in the basement, for example, seems to help deliver a commentary on the predatory nature of men in society, but the arc his presence could have followed is muddied by the girls’ musings about him, which are compelling and poetic but fail to really say anything substantial. The setup of Ladyworld gave it the potential to (really say something), but this was forfeited in pursuit of (being artistic). However, this is not necessarily to a fault. Like the avant-garde films shown in museums, the artistry of Ladyworld is its ability to use things like sound and makeup design make its audience feel a certain feeling and feel it strongly. In this, Ladyworld is completely successful.
Ladyworld is the female Lord of the Flies, raising similar concerns about human nature. When the girls are left with no authority and no structure, they quickly devolve to cruelty and social stratification. The girls in Ladyworld don’t fall to physical violence but instead to psychogical and emotional torture, as women tend to, which is just as unsettling to witness, and Ladyworld’s technical elements do a wonderful job of bolstering the discomfort. Even though maybe it really should be shown at MOMA instead of in movie theaters, Ladyworld is definitely a piece of art in some form.
Review Commentary by Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
As Julia notes above, Ladyworld is the female Lord of the Flies, literally–the plot mirrors the book exactly. Its adherence to the plot of Lord of the Flies is both what makes it interesting and what causes it ultimately to fail. What I’ve always hated about Lord of the Flies is the suggestion that the experiences of the young English schoolboys trapped on an island due to a shipwreck (cf. SoCal girls trapped in a house due to an earthquake) say anything about how humans act outside of the small subset of white colonizers who are raised like the kids in the book. Ladyworld transposes the same lack of mental rigor to its story, with modifications made for 21st century gender norms. The result is an ambitiously shot and produced but thematically unsatisfying film.
It’s always been clear to me that the only reason the Lord of the Flies kids acted the way they did is because white and male privilege, plus the dog eat dog narratives of capitalism, made them think that was acceptable. I invite anyone who doubts me on this point to read real historical accounts of how people act in the face of disaster–Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell describes first responders on 9/11, survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco as counterpoints to the narrative of human nature put forward by Lord of the Flies. Since Lord of the Flies is a fictional novel, akin to the author setting out a bunch of dolls and acting out a play with them for us at his own whims, I tend to trust Solnit’s non-fiction more.
By the way, Ladyworld also disturbingly reinforces gender bias as it seeks to subvert it. The idea that girls torture each other psychologically while men handle conflict through physical violence is a leaf taken from patriarchy’s book. Again, the suggestion of universality is a problem here as in Lord of the Flies. When the director makes the choice to portray (all) women as being just as power hungry and venal as (all) men, the result is just as starkly totalizing as in the book. I realize I am mostly disagreeing with both these narratives on a philosophical/ thematic level rather than an artistic one, but I don’t see why that should be off the table–critiquing what artists say in the same way we critique how they say it is crucial if we want art to be relevant to our lives/ the world, instead of serving as an abstract exercise for the elite. On that score, Ladyworld is a Lord of the Flies for white feminists rather than the more intellectually challenging piece it could have been.
Q: Does Ladyworld Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
A: Yes, definitely!
© Julia Lasker (8/29/19) FF2 Media
Photos: Credit to IMDB.