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Weekly Alibi Sex, Drugs amd Ally Sheedy

By Noah Masterson

AUGUST 10, 1998:  It's a bold move to call your film High Art because, well, what if it's not. Whether the title of this film is to be taken as a double-entendre (it's about drug-using artists), as self-parody or at face value is not delineated in the film. My best guess is that the title is intended to make people speculate what it means, as I'm doing right now. Still, anyone scared off by such a pretentious title might reconsider when they learn that High Art stars brat packer Ally Sheedy, a woman whose career piqued the interest of millions before sinking to lows like Short Circuit and Maid to Order.

It's ironic that Sheedy stars as Lucy Berliner, a photographer who hasn't worked professionally in 10 years. Sheedy has worked steadily since appearing in films like WarGames, The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire, but, for the last 10 years, no one's really noticed. High Art is a good film to springboard Sheedy's return to the public spotlight; it's as if she's finally realized what we've known all along--that she is too good an actress to be stuck in generic leading-lady roles.

The film is as much about Sheedy's character as it is about a young woman named Syd (Radha Mitchell). Syd has just secured a position as assistant editor at New York's trendy photography magazine Frame. She is ambitious and eager to please and puts in long hours--much to the chagrin of her longtime boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann). (The scenes that take place in the offices of Frame are hilarious, incidentally--some of the few light moments in an otherwise heavy film.) While investigating a leaky ceiling, Syd meets her upstairs neighbors, which include Lucy Berliner, Lucy's strung-out lover Greta (Patricia Clarkson) and a slew of other hangers-on. Syd, with her doe-eyed innocence, is immediately drawn to these people, particularly Lucy. The two start talking photography, and the groundwork is laid for a relationship, at first professional, then personal.

As Syd visits Lucy more regularly, the friendship between the two deepens, and Syd convinces Lucy to do a photo spread for Frame. The two spend a weekend in the country, and it becomes evident that Syd is the intended subject of Lucy's photos. Things get more complicated when Syd and Lucy sleep together. It may or may not be Syd's first lesbian experience, but it is clear that she is infatuated with Lucy and rapidly losing control over her feelings and actions. When they return to the city, they find more complications; lovers are jealous and drug habits escalate. All the characters are in a painful limbo, uncertain where to turn next. This edginess--this overwhelming feeling of uncertainty--characterizes the film.

High Art walks a fine line. Is it unbearably arty, or does it just have unbearably arty subject matter? The direction is pretty straightforward; the dialog is sometimes stilted and pretentious. But it's a film about arty New Yorkers who--I'm guessing--might actually talk that way. Either way, it's garnered awards at both Cannes and Sundance, and, aside from a complete cop-out of an ending, it's a surprisingly watchable film. Sheedy, whose gaunt frame and lined face brings to mind Alien 3-era Sigourney Weaver, has the New York cynicism thing down pat. And Australian-born Radha Mitchell, as Syd, is believably smart and vulnerable. So while High Art is not for all tastes--anyone still living in 1955 who might be shocked by realistic lesbian sex scenes should stay at home watching Cops instead--it comes close to what its title claims. It's an art film, yes. But it's an art film with enough substance to carry it past the highbrow conversations and pretty lighting.

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