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Review: In the squishy, supernatural 'Perpetrator,' an empathetic student is drawn to danger

You know that old saying about how any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic? The same could be said about the hazy line between gonzo art films and nerve-jangling horror. When movies get weird enough, they alter our sense of reality, becoming upsetting in ways that go beyond gore scenes and jump scares. David Lynch understands this. David Cronenberg knows it too. And so does Jennifer Reeder.

That’s not to say that Reeder’s work is on the level of “Mulholland Dr.” or “Videodrome” — not yet, anyway. But in 2019’s “Knives and Skin” and in her new film “Perpetrator,” the writer-director pushes toward a cinema that is original, personal and provocative. She’s not afraid to disorient an audience — or to disgust them. These are powerful tools for filmmakers who play around in the pulpier genres.

Like “Knives and Skin,” “Perpetrator” is set in an isolated community where teenage girls keep disappearing. Kiah McKirnan plays Jonny, a directionless young thief who gets shipped off to Chicago to attend a strict girls’ school and to live with her eccentric Aunt Hildie (played by Alicia Silverstone, who steals every scene she’s in with a vibe that’s like human warmth cranked up a few degrees too hot). At school, Jonny finds that the administrators are more obsessed with active-shooter drills than with education, and that her classmates won’t stop talking about a string of abductions around campus.

Meanwhile, at home with Aunt Hildie, Jonny learns that her family line has a shared gift: a supernatural empathy that affects the ones wielding it so profoundly, their faces, voices and even their scents change to match the person with whom they’re empathizing. Suddenly, Jonny has a new hobby. Instead of shoplifting and breaking into houses, she uses her powers to try to understand why girls are going missing.

On that plot description alone, “Perpetrator” may sound conventional — like “Veronica Mars” but with a touch of necromancy. From moment to moment, though, the movie is more elusive. It’s loose and almost off the cuff, as though Reeder whipped up a story at the last minute to connect all the freaky imagery she had to get out of her head. (Or at least that’s the best way to explain scenes like the one where Hildie finds some makeup Jonny has stolen and makes her eat one of the lipsticks.)

Bodily fluids ooze freely, with blood being the most prominent. (Eruptive vomit is not far behind.) Everyone’s a little queasy. The characters are at odds with their own bodies, especially the school’s staff, who are nearly always sporting bandages from recent plastic surgeries. Reeder doesn’t lean too heavy on the metaphors, but she is riffing on a society where women are made to feel at once physically imperfect yet also constantly at risk of being hunted down by psychopaths.

The slackness in Reeder’s storytelling works against her down the stretch, once Jonny becomes more focused on solving the mysteries of both the local crime spree and her own family history. The closer “Perpetrator” gets to being normal, the less memorable it becomes.

But Reeder has a keen sense of shock, both for comic and creepy effect. The film is dotted with dark little jokes — like when one of Jonny’s friends gets so exasperated by the school’s emphasis on personal safety that she groans, “Girls go missing all the time, what’s the big deal?” This is the kind of movie where, at any moment, the editor might throw in an insert shot of an oozing orifice, keeping viewers on their toes.

"Perpetrator" was clearly made by somebody working through some issues, in an exploratory mode. And if Reeder can’t make all of her ideas fit together neatly, that’s OK. Some movies are meant to be messy, and some messes are strangely alluring.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.