SXSW Review: M.F.A. Is A Genre Thriller That Asks Tough Questions

An unflinching examination of rape culture from a female perspective.

Traditionally, the rape-revenge subgenre follows a typical formula divided into three-acts. In the first, a character is brutally raped and then abandoned for dead. The second sees the victim surviving and rehabilitating from their ordeal. In the final act, the victim takes brutal revenge by way of vigilantism on their attackers. While the revenge seeking portion offers a catharsis for both the victim and the viewers, it’s a skewed fantasy. Natalia Leite’s rape-revenge thriller forgoes the catharsis in favor of opening up a dialog with the audience.

M.F.A. examines rape culture and the moral implications that arise from society’s aversion to facing an uncomfortable reality head on with its subsequent inability to handle sexual assault cases. For shy art student Noelle, it’s the system’s failings that lead her down the path of vigilantism after her graphic rape by a classmate. Traumatized, she turns to her bubbly neighbor Skye, played by Leah McKendrick (who also penned the screenplay). Skye advises her to chalk it up to a bad experience and let it go, because reporting it will only make things worse. Noelle decides to talk to a school counselor, a woman, who is more interested in knowing if Noelle’s attacker knew she meant “no,” or if she perhaps had a bit too much to drink that night. Joining a support group doesn’t help either, as the women in the group are dedicated toward supporting other victims of sexual assault whereas Noelle wants to prevent rape from happening in the first place. Her entitled rapist proves unrepentant, creating a wider chasm of helplessness.

Her rage grows to dangerous depths when she realizes that her campus is full of cases like hers, and in all of which the rapists faced no consequences for their horrifying actions. She takes it upon herself to serve due justice on behalf of other victims like her, becoming more brazen and violent with each act of retribution. Noelle’s transition empowers her, which should be liberating, but it comes with a cost. Each victim of violent crime copes in their own way, a fact that’s lost on Noelle through her consuming hatred. Even the best intentions can lead to dire outcomes. Systemic failure has created a monster out of Noelle.

As Noelle, Francesca Eastwood delivers a powerhouse performance. Her transition from meek to empowered, broken to dynamic killer, masterfully works in conjunction with Leite’s unflinching social commentary. There’s a low budget simplicity that works, because it allows Eastwood’s richly layered performance to sell the narrative.

For all that M.F.A. does well, it’s a bit too ambitious for its own good. Every question posed in the film is a valid one, but as a result the narrative gets spread too thin. The always effective Clifton Collins Jr. plays Detective Kennedy, a character that should bear more weight in the story but remains without purpose. There’s no time to really develop his character or fully bring Noelle’s arch to a satisfying close, because there’s too much to discuss in the short run time.

Even still, M.F.A. is a necessary watch. It’s a harrowing atomic bomb of truth that should serve as a base for many talking points. The unfortunate reality is that many women have found themselves in Noelle’s shoes; finding the courage to speak out about their trauma only to be met with skepticism or disbelief. The isolation can leave the anger and pain without an outlet of release. The vigilantism is only a hypothetical outcome stemming from very real depictions. Noelle’s journey is wrath-inducing and heart-wrenching. Her vigilantism doesn’t offer a gratifying release for the audience, but that’s not the point. It’s not the first rape-revenge thriller to take aim at the law or legal consent, but it is the first whose main purpose is not to invoke a sense of fantasy but to invite thought-provoking conversation about a painful subject matter with no easy answers.