Us 1980s kids will always remember teen star Justine Bateman as Mallory Keaton on NBC’s hit sitcom “Family Ties”. Since then she’s done a lot of television and has starred in a handful of big screen movies. But her role as the snarky yet kind-hearted younger sister to Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton is the one she’ll forever be affectionately attached to.
Now Bateman is making her feature film debut behind the camera with “Violet”, an audacious indie drama that she directs, writes, and produces. The film stars Olivia Munn, a talented and underrated actress who has been needing a role like this to sink her teeth into in order to open more eyes. Here she plays Violet, a film executive emotionally tormented by a cruel internal voice filling her with anxiety, insecurity and self-doubt. Bateman’s vision is a tricky one to pull off, but she manages it thanks to her uniquely clever approach.
On the surface, Violet seems to have everything a thirty-something professional woman could want. She’s smart, talented and attractive. She’s a successful movie producer with a good reputation who makes a comfortable living working in an industry she loves. But any chance of happiness and self-fulfillment is stymied by the bullying voice in her head. It keeps her constantly second guessing herself. It keeps her from going through with a long-time passion project despite the encouragement of colleagues. It dissuades her from pursuing a deeper relationship with her childhood friend Red (Luke Bracey).
To convey the struggle in Violet’s head Bateman uses a handful of stylish flourishes. The Voice (who she refers to as “the committee”) is…well…voiced by Justin Theroux. He’s mercilessly demeaning, calling her an idiot, a pig, and a baby. He tells her she’s inferior, unworthy, and a disappointment. Even worse, he suppresses any ambition or sense of accomplishment and urges her to accept the abuse both from her jealous boss Tom (Dennis Boutsikaris) and with her estranged family. The Voice tells her that she’ll never be a success if she follows her dreams and passions.
As a counter to the voice, Bateman also shows us Violet’s true feelings through handwritten thoughts that appear across the screen as she’s thinking them. Sometimes they’re questions like “Why can’t I just be happy?” Other times it’s a painful longing – “I want to be free.” There are several other visual touches Bateman uses to capture Violet’s mindset. They don’t always work and they sometimes inadvertently draw too much attention away from Violet. But once you get in sync with what Bateman is going for, it makes the occasional overreaches easier to look past.
Back to Munn, she truly is the most essential piece of the film. She brings the perfect measure of restraint to her character and relays so much through her sensitive expressions and body language. It’s a well-calibrated performance that deftly captures the various sides of Violet in a way that makes her feel genuine and relatable. And when Violet begins to question the Voice in her head, Munn gives us a good sense of the tension and conflict that comes with it.
One of my favorite scenes involves a poignant moment where Violet is reflecting back on her childhood. Her younger self is riding her bike on a idyllic afternoon. The wind is blowing through her hair, the warm sun beaming down on her face. “You’ll never find your way back to that kind of freedom,” the crippling Voice chides. It’s a picture of the bitter back-and-forths Bateman creates and Munn realizes.
To go along with those moments Bateman sprinkles in scenes that touch on the producing process – meeting with directors, sorting out casting, scheduling film festivals, etc. (I’m a sucker for that stuff). It all makes for an assured feature film debut that tackles its subject matter from a unique and fresh perspective. It doesn’t always come together as intended, but I love that Bateman took chances and “Violet” should open some exciting doors for both her and Olivia Munn. “Violet” gets a limited theater release October 29th before coming out on VOD November 9th.