Directed by: Carly Usdin
Written by: Brittani Nichols
Last year, during his South by Southwest keynote speech, actor/filmmaker Mark Duplass said: “There’s no excuse not to make films on weekends with friends”. That is, of course, incorrect. There are plenty of excuses not to make films on weekends with your friends. What if you have no friends? What if you work on the weekends or study? Or, rather more pointedly: What if you do not have the financial capabilities to do so? His statement was meant to be inspiring I’m sure, but it came off ableist and more than a bit tone deaf. He’s an upwardly mobile white man who has been making films with his brother and his friends for a decade. Of course he assumes everyone else can do it too.
Duplass and filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz and Lynn Shelton have dominated the low budget indie circuit for the better part of a decade; working together, casting each other, and generously populating the indie scene with collection of very white, very straight stars.
It really is about time a film came along to shake that up.
Suicide Kale is a film made by a queer woman, Carly Usain, in her feature film debut. It also has three queer women of color as main characters; played by Brianna Baker, Jasika Nicole, and Brittani Nichols (who also wrote the script). Queer women of color have entered the mumblecore world, and the genre is better for it.
The plot is a timeless one: Two couples, one married and one fairly new, get together for a small dinner party. As is often with these gatherings, conflicts arise and emotional truths come to light.
New couple Jasmine (Brittani Nichols) and Penn (Lindsay Hicks) enter the home of married couple, sen Billie (Jasika Nicole) and Jordan (Brianna Baker), sensing immediate tension. Billie seems upset, and Jordan seems to be hiding outside in the yard. Jasmine and Penn are already making assumptions when Jasmine finds a suicide note in Billie and Jordan’s room.
Through their reactions to the note, Jasmine and Penn’s personalities become clear. Jasmine is the much more serious one, and as the film progresses her apprehension about Billie and Jordan’s relationship is soon transferred to anxieties about her new relationship with Penn. Penn, in contrast, is much calmer about everything. She frames it as if she’s just trying to keep the mood light and not be heavy-handed in their pursuit of answers. This is partially true, but the larger truth seems to be that she is handling the situation calmly because she chooses to live by keeping people at arm’s length.
It s a complicated situation, in no small part because Billie and Jordan are tough nuts to crack. Jordan is emotionally distant in a much colder way than Penn is, and she shows few signs of opening up even as we approach the film’s climax.
Billie is by far the most interesting character. Jasika Nicole does so much with the film’s arguably most archetypal role: The attractive, smiling housewife who is just trying to keep everything together. Nicole conveys so much in her expressions. We can feel the pain of her forced smiles. When she frowns, it dims the entire film. One especially great scene, has her angrily preparing kale. She throws all her emotion into her hands beautifully.
Suicide Kale is a character study through and through. Enjoyment of the film hinges on a connection to the characters. The realism of the dialogue keeps the film relatable. The story itself is a simple and universal one. The difference is that we have never seen this story with these characters. It is definitely a hook. If I were to make any criticism about the film prior to the climax, it would be that I wish I knew even more about these characters. When catching nuggets of personal information I found myself creating full backgrounds for the characters in my head, imagining them in a long-running sitcom.
Once it is revealed who wrote the note, the film goes down much more cliched territory. The reveal is something that isn’t telegraphed at all, and the climax is fascinating for that reason. I won’t spoil it here.
By the end of the film, I found myself wishing it was Billie’s story. I felt unfulfilled by the ending, and I was more than a little upset about the turnout. But after taking some time to think about the film and providing myself with distance from it, I realized something:
Suicide Kale has opened the door for more films like it to be made. It is a landmark indie film, and hopefully sometime soon, we will be able to see more characters like Billie onscreen.