Writer-director Karen Moncrieff earned attention at the 2002
Sundance Film Festival with her debut film
BLUE CAR, about a
teenage girl and her relationship with one of her teachers. For her
follow-up,
THE DEAD GIRL, Moncrieff has made in an interesting
choice: instead of doing a straightforward feature, she has made five
short films that are tangentially related to a murder. Opening the film
at cineplexes at the holidays may have been a misstep, but it
would be a shame if audiences stayed away merely because of the
seemingly downbeat themes.
THE DEAD GIRL provides several of
terrific actresses with meaty roles and for that reason alone (let alone
Moncrieff's fluid direction and solid, if uneven, scripting) it deserves
to find an audience.

  The first featurette is called
"The Stranger" and to my mind
was one of the weakest. It revolves around Arden (an always excellent
Toni Collette), a milquetoast who spends her days caring for her         
harridan of a mother (a strident Piper Laurie, who appears to be
reprising the whack-job mom she portrayed in
CARRIE). Arden becomes
something of a minor celebrity in her community because she discovered
the body of the titular character. Emboldened by her new-found fame,
Arden makes a break from her overbearing mother and hooks up with
a creepy supermarket worker named Ray (Giovanni Ribisi, cast to type).
Their first date yields surprises, but to my mind, this story felt
incomplete compared with the others.

  
"The Sister" is an intriguing tale of a forensic graduate student
Leah (the amazing Rose Byrne) who starts to think that the body of the
young woman may be that of her missing sister. Her mother (Mary
Steenburgen) refuses to even consider the idea. Leah wants to believe
it is her sister, who was abducted years ago, so she can move on with
her life. I was especially impressed with Byrne's performance in this
portrait of grief.

  
"The Wife" offers veteran actress Mary Beth Hurt in a tour de
force as a woman whose bitter relationship with her husband (Nick
Searcy) yields unsettling evidence. Hurt runs the gamut from nagging
shrew to wounded wife to protective Mama Bear. I was not all that
impressed with Moncrieff's script for this segment, but Hurt turned
it into a master class.

  The fourth segment,
"The Mother," features Oscar winner Marcia
Gay Harden as the title character's parent who arrives in California
in search of answers about her daughter. She's guided in her quest
by a prostitute (the superb Kerry Washington) who has surprising ties
to the dead girl.

 In the final part, the audience actually gets to meet
"The Dead
Girl,"
a foul-mouthed force of nature named Krista (Brittany Murphy
in a career-making performance). This segment shows the character's
last hours and we learn the heartbreaking truth about why she ended
up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  Moncrieff clearly has a way with female actors and she is
to be applauded for providing so many juicy roles for women of all
ages. Although I found flaws with some of the various sections of
the film, I was impressed with the overall movie. Added together
THE DEAD GIRL is a well-acted motion picture.


          Rating:                 B
          MPAA Rating:         R
          Running time:        93 mins.

                  Viewed at Magno Review One
The Dead Girl
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.