Review by Sean Boelman
The coming-of-age genre is unique in that there are several different approaches a filmmaker can take to it. Writer-director Anna Roller’s feature debut Dead Girls Dancing struggles to find its ideal balance between abstract and straightforward, but intriguing character work, good vibes, and some extraordinary visuals make it worth seeing.
The film follows a group of friends who, recently having graduated from high school, set out on a road trip across Europe, picking up a mysterious drifter and going to an abandoned village, where they experience freedom and adulthood for the first time. Although this may sound like a premise that would lend itself to a road movie, it’s more complex.
For a majority of the runtime — at least two thirds of it — we are greeted with what is a relatively straightforward hangout movie. It’s refreshing within the genre, as audiences might be used to seeing “boys will be boys” stories, but far less acclimated to “girls will be girls” stories. The ruminations on growing up are poignant if not entirely profound, and the vibes are immaculate.
Like many hangout movies, the pacing is what many viewers would find to be slow or perhaps even lethargic. However, the film really gets viewers invested in the dynamic of friendship that is growing between these characters, and this will keep most people engaged even though the story is hardly innovative.
In the third act, the movie takes a twist that forces it to make a much more conventional turn. As one would expect, the characters that were largely depicted as “free-spirited” in the first part end up being “bad influences.” Of course, there’s a bit more nuance to it than that, but the film’s finale is more melodramatic than the opening would have suggested.
Roller’s approach to these characters is very naturalistic, and for much of the script, this works quite well for what it’s setting out to do. However, as if the movie felt the sudden obligation to commit to a plot, the mysteriousness element is kicked into overdrive in the final thirty minutes. Still, the performances — all from relative newcomers — keep it impressively grounded.
The true hero of the film is the cinematography by Felix Pflieger. From the first shots of the movie — some exquisitely framed school portraits — it’s clear that it has an eye for formalism and aestheticism. When the film reaches its destination of the Italian countryside, there are plenty of breathtaking shots of the gorgeous setting.
Dead Girls Dancing doesn’t quite stick the landing as well as it should have, but if viewers are able to get on board with its vibes, they’ll likely enjoy it nonetheless. If nothing else, this debut heralds the fact that Anna Roller is certainly an exciting new talent — particularly in the director’s chair.
Dead Girls Dancing screens at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which runs June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.