Opening on a black screen, a deafening rumble crescendos into silence and we’re introduced to Olivia (Ariela Barer) and Dolly (Ryan Simpkins), attempting to stay calm after an apparent earthquake. The pair wander the house, collecting together the ragtag group of girls, who realise they’re now shut in the house – no power, no electricity, no signs of help. In a vain attempt at teamwork, they cast votes and Olivia is assigned the title of ‘leader’, much to Piper’s (Annalise Basso) frustration.
Searching from room to room, looking for a way out, speechless Eden (Atheena Frizzel) claims to have seen a man in the house, putting the others on edge. Could a single man overpower eight teenage girls? Surely not. But it’s not actual violence that starts to fray the ties between them; the threat of his presence alone is enough to push all of them to the extreme, as a bitter power struggle between Olivia and Piper ignites. And if they don’t find a way out soon, it’s likely that someone will end up dead. Odessa Adlon, Maya Hawke, Tatsumi Romano and Zora Casebere complete the eight as Blake, Romy, Amanda and Mallory, respectively.
Directed by Amanda Kramer, Ladyworld is her second feature-length release after a series of shorts. Researching her back catalogue (I’m going to hunt down Bark), Kramer enjoys themes, particularly that of unhinged teenagers on a knife-edge between the real and the surreal. As our teenage years can be some of the most tumultuous of our lives, Kramer’s fascination and examination of teen behaviour – especially ‘pack’ mentality – is interesting, and is supported by Ladyworld‘s strong cast.
While some faces may look familiar, others are just starting out, and an indie like this feels like the perfect jumping off point. Barer – having featured in numerous TV shows over the years – as Olivia is the strong, determined leader the group need, only to be constantly challenged and undermined by Basso’s immature, power-hungry Piper. Along with her loyal followers Amanda and Mallory, Piper feels she has the upper hand, playing the cool, carefree card in front of the rest of the girls. However, when it’s just her and the camera, we see the true effects that being stuck is having on her mental health – it’s this that pushes the narrative forward and the group to the edge.
As the eight start to disband, Olivia seeks comfort from crystal-wearing Blake, and childlike Dolly. While Blake wanders, spending endless hours staring at the symbolic art hung on the walls of the house, Dolly attempts to help Olivia find a way out and in doing so becomes a stronger, more independent character. Simpkins’ wide-eyed innocence slowly shifts to uncontrollable anger though, as Piper’s digs and berating comments bring out the worst in everyone. Romy, played by Hawke (the breakout star of Stranger Things 3), is almost neutral ground as she drifts between the two groups – until one makeover session with Piper decides her fate. The natural, animalistic tendencies of the girls flourish under their current environment, creating a perfect breeding ground for fights – both physical and verbal – culminating in one final attempt at freedom, where Piper’s attempts to undermine Olivia’s leadership come to a head.
Under Kramer’s direction, it feels like the cast are left to their own devices, creating a very natural feel and flow of the dialogue. This is partnered with beautiful frame design and sound engineering. While limited in terms of space and props (the house has a number of rooms, but they’re sparse) Kramer and her team create visuals which look like still-life or portraits; extra seconds are added onto the start of each new scene so we can admire the placing of each character, their action, the way they look at each other, long hair draped over chairs as they check their phones or apply make-up. Modern day, millennial Madonnas, their physical beauty in stark contrast of their awful attitudes towards each other. In particular, take note of the scenes in the dining room, around the table, inspired by da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Olivia and Piper taking turns at playing Jesus surrounded by his disciples. This is all sound-tracked by eerie, jarring screams, shouts, breathing, humming, panting – reflecting the animal, fight-or-flight instincts of our characters.
Ladyworld is a beautiful mess of aggression, tension and sensuality, helping to showcase not only Kramer’s fantastic skill as a director, but that of eight relatively new faces in Hollywood. I guarantee you’ll be seeing all of them again.