Zach Gayne’s Homewrecker was one of the less publicized selections at the 2020 Chattanooga Film Festival, despite its overall positive reception at last year’s Fantastic Fest, likely because the premise is so simple.
Homewrecker centers on just two characters. Michelle (Alex Essoe, Starry Eyes) is a newly married thirty-something interior designer, who is guilted into making a new friend out of the forty-something Linda (Precious Chong) after one of their shared fitness classes. Convincing Michelle to stop by her house to consult on some redecorating, it’s quickly clear Linda is more than just lonely, and is dangerously obsessive.
Plot wise, this film will be comfort food level territory to anyone who recalls the ’90s boom of thrillers focused on female jealousy and misdirected desire. From Misery and Single White Female to Poison Ivy and The Crush, Homewrecker has both subject matter and a trapped in amber retro sheen that are a perfect callback to a certain overblown strain of late night cable potboiler that is likely due a revival.
What Homewrecker lacks in clever plotting, it amply makes up for in a script that absolutely sings with both hard truths and comedic barbs as the two leading ladies circle around each other in what becomes an increasingly fraught game of cat and mouse. Co written by the director and both of the film’s leads, the expert skewering of all of the various gendered expectations placed on women is a far more nuanced and layered take than we usually get in this subgenre of film. A barrage of knowing winks at both the real life pressures of and pop culture tropes inspired by those impossible standards is part of what makes this flick a joy to watch.
Michelle is all amicable agreement and inflections that lilt upward, so afraid to offend she won’t even talk to her husband about her anxieties regarding their marriage and plans for a family. Every third sentence is started with an apology, and she can’t bear to upset Linda by refusing her increasingly invasive and inappropriate requests. By prioritizing politeness to the extreme, she sacrifices her own safety in a sea of red flags, only finding the strength to fight for herself in the film’s final act.
Alex Essoe sells this character arc with quiet effectiveness, making Michelle meek but not cowardly, down but not quite out, in a way that is relatable to root for as she catfights for her life against the increasingly manic Linda. It’s a smart choice, and shows a strong understanding of genre film work, as Michelle is the more grounded anchor that keeps the picture in the realm of enjoyably soapy as Precious Chong’s Linda becomes increasingly unglued.
Speaking of Precious Chong, she absolutely walks away with this film firmly tucked in her back pocket, her performance a modern Baby Jane pushed into the heyday of MTV. If Michelle is a digital age people pleaser, Linda has been crushed under retrograde heteronormative expectations of a woman’s principle value being in her ability to obtain a husband and bear children.
At 44, she clearly sees herself as an inadequate “old maid”, trying to fill the gaps with painting, spin classes, and a doomed aggressive cheerfulness that lies somewhere between an aerobics instructor and Jesse Spano’s adventures with caffeine pills. This brightly brittle quality is absolutely shades of Annie Wilkes, and it comes as no surprise that Linda also has a discomfiting fondness for a sledgehammer, displayed in a decorative place of pride on her wall.
I pity the fool who does not share Linda’s rabid dog nostalgia for both goofy teen queen board games straight out of Tiger Beat and the early filmography of Shannen Doherty. When Michelle tries to opt out of Linda’s hellish home confinement slumber party, both the horror and the comedy kick into high gear.
Sodium thiopental sits alongside snide burn book snipes about the sexual consequences of TMJ. Escapes are thwarted by a sunny affirmation of self defense for the single woman. Linda and Michelle bash each other upside the head with the various tools of beauty culture and feminine sexual competition (from curling irons to “intimacy aids”) while literally fighting for their lives. A brilliant needle drop (arguably even better than the one featured in After Midnight) of Lisa Loeb’s 1994 hit “Stay (I Missed You)” is 3 minutes of coal black comedy perfection.
This brings me to my one big issue with Homewrecker. While what the cast and crew were able to accomplish given just three locations and four total actors is commendable, Zach Gayne’s direction is workmanlike, at best. Both a television style split screen effect and a transition shot of a bubblegum pink bath bomb wear out their welcome due to repetitious overuse. In the more physical fight scenes, the editing is so muddled it’s rather difficult to tell what is going on at all. While Homewrecker as a whole punches above its weight class, the lack of a defined aesthetic in the visuals of the film are absolutely the place where the low budget seams start to really show.
Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge brought a fresh, feminist spin to the rape-revenge exploitation subgenre, and Homewrecker pulls off a similar feat for hagsploitation, bringing psycho biddies into the modern age in a fast paced, funny 76 minutes that charms intensely without overstaying the welcome of its clever dialog and committed performances. A perfectly plucky little midnight movie, and an ideal candidate for a particular brand of cult following if given a chance with a wider release.
WICKED RATING: 7.5/10
Director(s): Zach Gayne
Writer(s): Zach Gayne, Alex Essoe, Precious Chong
Stars: Precious Chong, Alex Essoe
Studio/ Production Co: Dark Star Pictures
Runtime: 76 minutes