The following post contains spoilers for New Year, New You
The horror anthology series Into the Dark on Hulu has been getting steadily better since its debut episode, a shrug-worthy effort called The Body, started streaming in October. With a new release scheduled to arrive each month for an entire year, the Blumhouse production is breaking form in December with a double drop: The first was director Nacho Vigalondo’s well-executed Pooka, but the second is Dark’s best entry yet.
New Year, New You is director Sophia Takal’s first feature-length project since 2016’s acclaimed thriller Always Shine, and it centers on a group of estranged childhood friends coming together for the first time in years to celebrate New Year’s Eve in one of their childhood homes. And three of the ladies are there to settle scores with the fourth, a famous lifestyle blogger who sells freshly pressed juice to celebrities and coaches her followers to believe nothing can stand in between them and all that they desire.
The first part of New Year, New You slowly builds up the feeling of sickness that comes with knowing something terrible is on its way — and affects the awkward sensation of being in a room while two of your friends have a very personal fight with shocking accuracy. But the dread gives way to a much more murder-y second half after Suki Waterhouse’s character, Alexis, decides it’s time to torture her famous, flawless former bestie (Carly Chaikin as the lifestyle blogger “Get Well” Danielle) into confessing her long-buried sins.
It’s a disturbing scene that blurs the lines between hero and villain, and makes those who do nothing in the face of violence just as guilty as those who would actively cause harm. (It also confirms your suspicion that being a professional influencer is a great cover for sociopathy.) After Shine came out, Takal talked about wanting to move into lighter fare, but it’s clear that the horror genre is still well-tailored to her lens of cultural critique. So before you get your own 2019 resolutions in order, read about how the filmmaker took self-care culture to its bloody extreme and pulled off New Year, New You’s most pivotal scene.
Make It Your Own
Takal wasn’t looking to make another suspense film after Shine, but the script concept Blumhouse handed her had too much potential to turn down. “I made Always Shine before the #MeToo movement, before this new wave of openly discussing women’s experiences,” Takal told Vulture. “I have to say, one of the things I was nervous about diving into this project was, are women really still competitive with one another? Like, I wonder if this is even an appropriate thing to make a movie about. But this idea of self-care and these mantras about how we deserve things, that was sort of my way into it, because I do find that way of talking and thinking about life kind of disturbing.”
The director rewrote the script after accepting the job, but kept the bones of the story in place. A group of girlfriends come together. One of them is an ascendant social-media star and the others are jealous of her success. They also know she’s a fraud. The primary conflict surfaces during a game of Never Have I Ever, and everything turns to chaos from there. A key change Takal made was to write “Get Well” Danielle as a “self-care guru,” which turned out to be the perfect mask for a calculating narcissist hawking her Very Very Vegetable juice, but who hides a deadly secret from the millions of followers who look to her for guidance on self-love. It’s a vehicle for villainy that personally troubles Takal, and it gave the director a great setup for how Alexis chooses to dehumanize her ex-friend during the interrogation scene, sheering off Danielle’s hair with broken glass and slathering her face with ethical cosmetics while accusing her of bullying and murder. At the same time, Alexis loses her own grip on the moral high ground.
“That really opened up for me what kinds of ways these women would torture one another, in particular the moment where she’s slapping on this cruelty-free face mask and makeup and kind of turning [Danielle] into a Joker-esque monster,” says Takal. “Oftentimes I’ll just get an image and that will help me track where I’m going, like a benchmark. So the idea of using these products or tools that we’re taught make us feel good about ourselves in a way that is violent and off-putting was something that was really exciting to me. There’s something a little scary and horrific about that, and finding a way to visually show that idea onscreen helped bring me inside the characters’ minds.”
Move Fast and Break Things, But Don’t Hurt Carly Chaikin
The production schedule for New Year, New You only allowed for 15 days of shooting, and Chaikin wasn’t even locked into the cast until the week filming started. That left the team with very little time for extra setups. Scenes had to be executed quickly, and while stunt doubles were provided for hard contact blocking like face slaps (so Alexis could really put her arm into some swings on Danielle) Chaikin opted out of other comforts that would have made things like getting bottles of Champagne poured on her more tolerable. “Carly was so professional and so good,” says Takal. “She was such a trooper with the Champagne, and so nice to let us do that to her.”
Because of the tight turnaround, Takal also knew that she had to manufacture the chemistry of four lifelong friends in a hurry. When Alexis, Kayla (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and Chloe (Melissa Bergland) tie Danielle to a chair, it’s not a random crime. It’s personal. So in place of running scenes, Takal organized “backstory rehearsals” where the actors improvised scenarios like sleepovers in character, or how they all reacted when Danielle had her first viral clip on YouTube. Whenever time allowed, Takal even incorporated the “hippie warm-ups” and breathing exercises she did with her cast on Always Shine. This helped her actors get a better emotional feel for one another, but also established the physical familiarity that comes with being around your childhood friends. It’s a chemistry that makes their goofy reenactment of choreographed dances from their teen years feel genuine, and helps the dark turn into Danielle’s interrogation feel even more bracing in contrast.
“Nothing Stands Between Me and All of My Desires.”
An essential element of Danielle’s character is that she believes her own lies so deeply, the myth of her persona becomes truth. (That the character is embodied by the inherently sardonic Chaikin makes Miss Get Well even more destabilizing). Alexis screams at her to admit what she’s done, to confess that she bullied a girl to death in high school and exploited the weak spots of her own “close” friends for sport — and to do it on video so her fans can see and she will finally be brought down in disgrace. But what makes the scene work so well, and indeed makes all of New Year, New You work, is the fluidity of protagonist and antagonist when sisterhood collides with the conditioned belief that success and desirability are limited resources that women must take from others by force. “I find women’s inhumanity toward one another extraordinarily upsetting and scary and horrific,” says Takal. “And so much of our inhumanity toward one another is because of the position we are in. There are forces outside of us that pit us against each other.”
As Alexis becomes unhinged, Kayla and Chloe uncomfortably look on, increasingly unsure if what they’re doing is justified, but unwilling to stop it. Meanwhile, Danielle remains calm in the face of abuse, making Alexis appear even more hysterical and eventually using her composure to manipulate Chloe to her side. The viewer is rooting for humiliating vengeance if Alexis is right, but you start to wonder … what if she’s not? You’re pretty sure Danielle’s poise is a chilling ruse, but what if Alexis, unhappy with her own life and coveting her old friend’s bright and shiny life, has simply snapped? If Alexis is really on the righteous side of justice, her motivation makes her a vigilante hero (at least in a horror movie), but if she’s only driven by sour grapes, it makes her no better than Get Well Danielle.
“I find that no matter how intellectually aware you are of how insidious and bad this kind of culture is, there’s still a pull to it,” Takal says, adding that she worked with Chaikin to build an almost soothing kind of charisma into Danielle, which was a common trait they gleaned from wellness influencers after poring over hours of video. “I’m not not participating in it, but I think self-care culture is very narcissistic when it’s taken to the extreme that it is on social media, so I wanted to play around with this idea of ‘Pamper yourself! Treat yourself!’ But like, actually, there’s something kind of violent about this idea that we’re supposed to present ourselves a particular way. We’re supposed to turn ourselves into a product. Our own selves are the thing we’re selling. Even though [New Year, New You] is told with humor, there is something about genre that lends itself to showing the way we treat one another and react to one another that is very scary and monstrous.”