SXSW 2021: Justine Bateman's 'Violet' Confronts That Inner Voice
by Alex Billington
March 21, 2021
You know that inner voice that always prevents you from doing the right thing? That always stops you from being your true self? What if you could learn to reject it and listen to yourself instead, staying true to who you really are. That is the concept behind Violet, a seemingly autobiographical film that marks the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Justine Bateman. This indie dramatic feature just premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival and it's one of the most creative films I caught during the virtual festival this year. It's set in Hollywood, following a development executive struggling with her life as this voice, literally voiced by Justin Theroux, keeps telling her how much she sucks and how she should just keep quiet and do her job just like she's told. Eventually, she learns to stop letting that voice control her and starts listening to herself.
Bateman's Violet stars Olivia Munn as Violet, working in the film industry at a production studio trying to keep her shit together while trying to help develop some actually interesting projects. It's a brutally honest tale of saying fuck you to the inner voice that's ruining your life. I love how deeply personal it is, and how sharp it is about how messed up the entertainment industry is (everything she puts in this is accurate), and how you have to trust your instincts, not that sonuvabitch voice telling you all the worst things. She explores the core of where this voice came from - basically being raised by parents that always yelled at her. Indeed, I know a LOT of people just like Violet. Not everyone is like this, some people have other mental blocks, and some people don't hear any other voices at all. Others like her might find this film not only cathartic but entirely life-changing as a story of one woman overcoming this inner voice and breaking free from that trap.
The filmmaking is a bit jarring at first, but once it gets going I found myself quite intrigued by the creative flourishes. Violet features three distinct layers of voices and conversation going on in addition to what we're watching in the film with Olivia Munn and her life in Hollywood. Hand-written text appears on screen every so often, representing her true desires & thoughts that she wishes she could express but often can't. Theroux voices "The Voice" inside of her head, speaking all the time and telling her what to do or not to do. There's also bits of footage that is cut into scenes representing another layer of static or chaos inside her mind. At times it's calming, other times it's grating, playing like an out-of-control flash of imagery that throws her off balance. Not everyone will enjoy this kind of filmmaking, but it's incredibly artistic and incredibly personal attempting to capture what it's like to actually be her and live with these layers swirling around all the time.
Best of all, Olivia Munn is exceptional in the role. She seems to not only understand the character, but also understand exactly the experience Bateman is trying to portray with this story, allowing her subtle emotions to add an additional layer on top of everything else. I have a few minor issues with the film overall, but I was impressed with everything about it. It's unconventional and that's exactly what makes it stand out. And best of all it seems like cathartic filmmaking - a way to show us that they can overcome that inner voice, too, and a way to say screw you to the assholes of Hollywood. If anything, it ends too abruptly when I was hoping to learn about how she confronts and overcomes this voice. It's a gradual understanding and a gradual sense of learning to ignore it, but right when she gets good at that, it's all over. Nonetheless it's an empowering film.