There are a couple of restless spirits swirling about the turbulent emotional center of Golden Earrings, and though one in particular haunts the characters within the fabric of the film itself, it is the second that haunts the viewer long after the movie is over. Directed and written by actress Marion Kerr (who plays one of those spirits), the movie begins, as so many independently financed and produced movies that must make do with readily available settings seem to, as a group of friends gather in an apartment for a going-away party. Sara (Kerr) is off for a long weekend to visit her mother after a fight with her estranged boyfriend. Sara is somewhat distraught over the decision to take the trip and she tries to hide her nervous tension, but the five friends who are there to support —three men (John T. Woods, Teddy Goldsmith , Anthony Dimaano) and two women (Julia Marchese and Lauren Mora)—pick up on her ambivalence quickly. At first the gathering looks like it’s going to be yet another occasion for post-Tarantino slacker gab over pizza and beer, but the writer-director disarms this fear with relative ease. The rhythm of the group’s chatter may seem familiar at first, but as Kerr’s calm inquisitive attitude toward the dynamics of the relationships at the kitchen table begins to reveal itself it becomes clear she, thankfully, has something else up her sleeve.
Ronnie (Julia Marchese) is taking Sara’s departure with a heavier heart than the others, and her interaction with Sara as Sara prepares to leave reveal the bonds of a long, perhaps tense, but meaningful friendship that, at least as Ronnie sees it, may be being threatened by Sara’s decision to consider reuniting with her boyfriend. There’s a suggestion of sexual attraction on Ronnie’s part, but that element is part and parcel of the kind of intense relationship that often develops between women which often goes unspoken, unacknowledged, and is only a fraction of what forms the bond in the first place. Kerr and Marchese are comfortable with the suggestion, but it doesn’t overtake their conception of how the two women relate to each other. With a few short strokes in the film’s first 15 minutes they fulfill what Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox could not in the entirety of Jennifer’s Body-- that is, conveying to the audience the understanding of how two clearly different women—one confident, the other insecure-- could survive everyday adversity and interpersonal tension while remaining friends, as well as what would compel that friendship in the first place. (And there’s no need for the tease of hot girl-on-girl action to fill in the holes in the characters left by the writer and director in Golden Earrings.)
Sara leaves and the group is left to their own devices for the evening. Ronnie suggests they have a round on the Ouija board and they all jump in, save Goldsmith who abstains (his elucidation of his reasons why is an early highlight). The group apparently makes contact with a recently deceased spirit who, to their horror, reveals itself to be that of Sara. Attempts to contact their friend via phone are unsuccessful and the group begins to suspect the worst—that Sara may have had a fatal accident shortly after leaving the apartment. But no one fears more than Ronnie, the depth of whose attachment to Sara begins to reveal itself, along with even darker undercurrents, as her terror begins to intensify and it becomes apparent, after her other friends have departed and she waits in her apartment for news of Sara’s fate, that something else may be going on. That Ouija game box won’t stay put away. A record of an old jazz vocalist keeps cueing up and playing on its own. Ronnie may not be alone.
Golden Earrings is a bit of a revelation on two counts. This is Marion Kerr’s first effort as a feature director. It is astonishing in that regard for its confidence, for the assurance she expresses through her use of the camera and for her ability to construct solid, emotionally suggestive scenes without the requisite visual gimmickry that is the typical hallmark of a first-time filmmaker. Kerr’s patience here (and her appeal and ability as an actress to hint at the tremulous inner-life of the outwardly strong Sara) are strengths which inform the movie as a whole and allow the creepiness that moves in like a silent, insistent fog to settle into the viewer’s bones. As Golden Earrings begins to reveal its psychologically anchored horrors in a manner befitting a minor-key Repulsion, Kerr’s directorial nuances, and restraint, become even more critical and impressive. Kerr turns the screws, all right, but at a slightly different angle and speed than what we may be prepared for. Like a deceptively tossed breaking ball, her talent for chilling an audience’s spine is right in the groove. She has the sharp instincts of an old pro, the curiosity and openness of a youngster, and a bright future in which to hone her relatively raw talent into something resembling a veteran filmmaker’s unique vision.
But even more impressive is the performance Kerr gets from her lead actress, Julia Marchese. In reality the two women are old friends, and they are able to channel that sense of experience into a very believable connection between Sara, who we sense is struggling to gain footing in life outside the sphere of her relationship with her best pal, and Ronnie, who is perhaps more comfortable in the existing dynamic between them than is advisable. So when Sara leaves the limited parameter of the world according to Ronnie (as we experience it), it’s not too surprising when that world begins to unravel. The real pleasure in watching Marchese here is that the unraveling is never ostentatious, showy or theatrical. Quite the opposite, Marchese seduces us into accepting what Ronnie sees, as she sees it, by underplaying the creeping unease and disorientation, never projecting beyond what we already have experienced ourselves through Kerr’s patient design. In the process, she proves herself to be an actress who rewards patient observation with a richness of empathy, and she has a lovely physical screen presence that proves integral to getting the viewer on her side. There are moments during which all we are given to register the unmoored fear Ronnie feels over Sara’s disappearance and her apparent reappearances is the contrapuntal placidity of Marchese’s expressive face as she surveys a trashed, empty room or stares off into ostensibly unoccupied space from her bed. But when the fear begins to surface in ever-more disturbing fashion, Marchese proves up to the task as well, offering the audience a classically modulated template of terror over which plays the conflicting emotions of hallucination, the cold fear of visitation from a deceased spirit, and the even more complicated prospect of a mind coming undone. It’s really a superb piece of acting, no less so because it comes in such a modest production, and it matches the movie’s ability to conjure emotional power from apparently meager resources. If Golden Earrings is any indication, however, Marchese’s resources are far from meager. Her work as Ronnie is astounding in that she manages aggressive, lapel-grabbing desperation at the same time as she begins to recede and curl away into memories of a world that was probably never exactly as she imagined or needed it to be. At no time does Marchese aim for the rafters, yet what she does here has a personal power to hit you in the chest as if she felt even the rafters weren’t high enough. Hers is the spectral presence that stays with you after the movie’s final frame.
If and when this movie makes it to the festival circuit, don’t be surprised if Julia Marchese is a name you start hearing more often. This is the caliber of acting that independent films often strive for, but rarely achieve. And Golden Earrings is proof positive that independent films can still sidestep the traps that have made the shortcut term “indie” synonymous with myriad D.I.Y. mediocrity and clichés. It’s a solid, affecting thriller with a star-making performance (in a perfect world) at the eye of its hair-raising emotional storm, and I hope you get a chance to see it soon
The trailer for Golden Earrings
Go to the Golden Earrings site for more information.