With Mad Women, Jeff Lipsky Dares Us to Rethink Desire

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Jeff Lipsky, the writer-director of the sexually explicit family psychodrama Mad Women, all but dares you not to loathe his film. He even gives his female protagonist, Nevada Smith (Kelsey Lynn Stokes), a line of dialogue for audiences and critics to use against him: Nevada tells a friend that a movie of her life wouldn’t be any good because, “Nobody can identify with me.” It’s almost funny-ha-ha the way that, speech by speech (there are many speeches), the characters alienate you, adding extra sentences guaranteed to shift your response from hmmm to ewww.

I like a good dare. And I respect a filmmaker who zooms in on the sexual subtext to the point where you want to hide under your seat. Not that it’s easy to watch ...

Nevada has an interesting family. Her doting father, Richard (Reed Birney), is a dentist who tells her a story — about a competition between him and a teenage buddy to kiss a girl that ends with the friend’s dismemberment — as a preface to saying he’s about to be arrested for having sex with a 16-year-old in a bathroom during a John Fogerty–Jackson Browne concert where he dropped acid for the first time in 30 years. Her mother, Harper (Christina Starbuck), seems several times crazier. Newly emerged from prison after plotting to murder a potentially homicidal anti-abortion activist, Harper runs for mayor of their affluent, generally white city on a social-justice platform of escalating nuttiness, from mandatory 72-hour prison terms for dropping cigarette butts to outright secession. Lipsky distributes snippets of the announcement of her candidacy (she stands on a stage with a group that includes her husband and daughter) throughout the film, her weirdly unnatural delivery (combined with the crowd’s weirdly unnatural enthusiasm) suggesting a right-wing male’s terrifying peyote vision of a Hillary Clinton rally.

Nevada, who lives with her parents, is a middle sister. The older is a physician who works for Doctors Without Borders in Ukraine while the younger died of cancer at age 3 but is still very present in the family’s psychological makeup. A lot of people stare at Nevada. She allows one — who doesn’t speak and from whom you wouldn’t accept a ride in a blizzard — to hold the baby of a friend while she whacks a tennis ball. Another regularly watches her through binoculars from his home across the street. Another is her soon-to-be boyfriend, Otto (Eli Percy), whose courtship involves punching her so hard in the stomach that it takes her a minute to get up. (Everybody picks on poor Otto for his name, including Otto.) Another is her mother.

Like all of the other characters, Nevada’s diction, syntax, and vocabulary are dense, formal, theatrical — you can almost see the ellipses and em-dashes on the page. Nevada tells Otto a story about something that “inculcated the concept of paradigms in Grandma.” Mostly, though, she tells stories about sex, a couple of which make Lena Dunham’s matter-of-fact description of putting her finger in her baby sister’s vagina seem vanilla. Halfway into Mad Women there’s a plot turn that literally made me scream. I won’t mention it because I don’t want to deprive you of the chance to scream, too.

To take something away from Mad Women beyond disgust, you have to accept its artificial language and experience it — much as you would a play — as a heightened drama in which everyone speaks as if sitting opposite his or her therapist. (There are actually two therapists in the film, and the stories and reminiscences in their offices don’t sound very different from the ones in restaurants, bedrooms, etc.) You have to accept that, in this universe, every relationship — especially between family members — has a sexual component and every core memory (to borrow — blasphemously — from Pixar’s Inside Out) represents a stage in the acquisition of a sexual identity. Most if not all of those stages are like traumas frozen in time.

If I say that the actors are also “interesting,” does that sound like a bash? It’s not. It means they keep you watching and thinking while the script has them making quantum — or, to be more colloquial, wtf — leaps. Birney is an old hand at stylized dialogue and can maintain a bland affect while telling his wife and daughter over dinner about, say, finger-fucking other convicts. Stokes is, indeed, difficult to identify with, but despite her hard expressions, her face is porous. She’s human. The mother, Harper, is less so, and Starbuck threw me with her mayoral candidacy speech: Her cadences are so stilted that at first I couldn’t tell if she was a stilted actress or just playing a stilted actress. It’s the latter, of course, but the character is still a world away.

There are a couple of scenes in Mad Women — one involving the peeper across the street, the other the epilogue in a bike shop — that are so perplexing you wonder if Lipsky is a world away from the impact of his movie. The cue-ball-bald teenager in that epilogue is named Jeff and is obviously meant to be the filmmaker (Lipsky, a distinguished indie distributor, writes in a new memoir about his alopecia), but the last thing the movie needs is an extra Huh?

I like the movie, though. It forced me to rethink the way sexual desire saturates everything, along with extreme vulnerability of children. And I don’t like backing down from a movie that challenges me. I’m half inclined to dare you to see it.