High Art: Review – Palo Alto Weekly

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in High Art: Press, Press

Palo Alto Weekly
Jeanne Aufmuth

Fledgling screenwriter/directors often dream up intriguing concepts that more often than not lose something in the translation. When concept and story cleanly unite, the results are immensely satisfying. Such is the case with High Art, a seductive tale of the struggle for love and the pain of rehabilitation.

Syd (Radha Mitchell) is an assistant editor at the hip photo magazine Frame. Despite the long hours and ambitious notions, she’s still on the fringe. A leaky apartment ceiling leads to a chance encounter with a reclusive neighbor, Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy). Seems Berliner was a celebrated photographer who abruptly dropped out of the art scene 10 years earlier. Syd is enchanted by Lucy’s work, and curiously attracted to Lucy’s lesbianism and co-dependent relationship with a heroin-addicted German actress. Syd convinces Lucy to jump-start her career again, but passion and professionalism clash in a series of dramatic circumstances.

This is a surprisingly accomplished project for young writer/director Lisa Cholodenko. The story is chock full of small subtleties that loom large; the rekindling of Lucy’s long dormant ambition, Syd’s urgency to succeed, a yearning and complex romance, and the wasted energies of heroin addiction. Sheedy is remarkably unlike the actress of her Brat-Pack days; she performs with a forceful desperation that is mesmerizing. Mitchell is a divine combination of sexuality and innocence, and her spiritual awakening is intensely erotic. Just when the story risks being bogged down by scenes of strung out addicts doing their thing (as did Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), it redeems itself by cutting a new dramatic corner. Photography is stark, and the bold colors are reminiscent of early Pedro Almodovar work. Tragedy, comedy, love and sex. You can’t ask for more than that.

High Art: Review – Nick’s Flick Picks

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in High Art: Press, Press

Nick’s Flick Picks
Nick Davis

High Art, the new film from first-time writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, certainly aims high but still isn’t quite art. In fact, who knows what to make of a film whose primary virtue, together with the quality of its acting, is the scale of its ambition, yet which grows in plot and theme more and more critical of ambition? This narrative dilemma, rather than weakening Cholodenko’s film, actually gives it structure and drive, sustaining High Art through occasional lapses in its storytelling and making of it an intriguing if not wholly successful picture.

The central figure in High Art is Syd (Radha Mitchell), a newly-promoted assistant editor at a modish New York photography magazine called Frame. Syd is a hard worker and has a keen eye, but because her superiors have yet to fill the intern position she vacated for her editorship, she is currently working absurd hours trying to do both jobs. Her boyfriend Steve (Gabriel Mann) laments what he considers her exploitation by the Frame staff, but Syd, confident that her dedication will push her up through the editorial ranks, has no complaints. “I’m trying to stick up for you,” Steve insists. “Why?” Syd asks. “No one’s bullying me.”

Cut to Syd, after another late night at the office, lounging in her bathtub and noticing that a pipe from the apartment immediately upstairs has sprung a leak through her ceiling. Cholodenko, whose script won the Screenwriting Award at this spring’s Sundance Film Festival, is nonetheless more than willing to throw in a few unlikely convolutions–the landlord doesn’t answer his phone (apparently for days), Syd has a way with a wrench and some duct tape–to shuttle her protagonist into the upstairs den of debauched sophistication where her story will take off.

This combination flop-house/speak-easy is the residence of two women who once gave themselves entirely over to art: Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a German actress whose career took a dive after the death of Fassbinder, and Lucy (Ally Sheedy), a photographer of stunning, decadent portraits who abandoned her promising career to accompany Greta further and further into their shared black forest of drugs and sex. The women are still attached to each other, lustful and desperate but also still, on some level, inspired by each other’s sensitive nature and past artistic achievements. Unfortunately, both women invested so much of themselves in their craft, and both have flushed so much of their residual income on booze and narcotics, that the reserve of vitality or feeling left in either woman is too depleted to carry the relationship much longer.

Thus, Cholodenko has already situated Greta and Lucy precariously on the edge of a break-up when Syd comes knocking, tools in hand, asking to tinker with Lucy’s pipes. “Are you running a bath?” Syd asks Lucy as the latter opens the door. “Nobody here has taken a bath in several days,” Lucy confesses, the fog of heroin so thick in her brain that her words sound like underwater utterances. Syd, however, is so instantly fascinated by the photographs hung around the apartment, many of them of Greta, that she doesn’t seem to notice most of the hangers-on snorting and smoking in Lucy’s living room, nor is she put off by Lucy’s hazy demeanor. She enthuses about the spontaneity of Lucy’s photos, not immediately recognizing that Lucy is the photographer, and therefore quickly embarassed by her own florid appraisals. “Am I going off?” she nervously asks her neighbor. “No,” Lucy answers, “I just haven’t been deconstructed in a while.”

As anyone who has ever seen a movie featuring a plumber already knows, Syd’s attraction to Lucy will prove to have far more facets than mere aesthetic appreciation. Or in other words, Syd will extend her aesthetic appreciation to more of Lucy than just her photographs. Cinema, as we survey other recent releases like Alan Rudolph’s Afterglow and the Wachowski Brothers’ Bound, is perhaps the last cultural realm where working as a plumber guarantees for the individual an immediate and intense sexual gratification; this unfailing phenomenon is even more surprising when one considers sitcom plumbers, who mostly appear as overweight white guys begging cheap laughs when their butts poke out from the waistlines of their jeans.

High Art doesn’t have the humor or the steely self-assurance of Bound, a razor-sharp thriller/campfest that acknowledged the clichéd phoniness of short-handing a woman’s skill with bathroom pipes as an instant flag of lesbian sexuality. High Art, by contrast, scores aces for slinky atmosphere but overdoes the seriousness, offering a somber, compellingly seedy, but occasionally lethargic story where the sexual roundabouts that “shock” its various characters are rarely if ever shocking to us. By the time Lucy gets saddled with a cartoonish Jewish mother, Cholodenko seems as starved for inspiration as Greta and Lucy are demonstrated to be.

All of that said, however, High Art grabs our interest early and holds it throughout. The almost hypnotic effect of the picture springs partly from the rich, percussive soundtrack composed by Shudder To Think, but more credit belongs to the trio of actresses at the center of the narrative. Mitchell has the largest role, and she nicely manages the bewilderment of an innocent drawn so far into this circle of sirens. (It is one of Cholodenko’s more felicitous screenwriting decisions to make the demimonde as unnerved and intimidated by Sid as she is of them.) Clarkson, meanwhile, impresses mightily as Greta, whose mordant wit is an obvious retort to a life and a lover she feels have abandoned her. One can only wonder where Cholodenko found a player daring enough to maker her strung-out lines unintelligible, but the director reaps full rewards from this pungent, unforgettable actress.

However strong these women’s performances, however, it’s Sheedy–and who ever thought this sentence was possible?–who holds the picture together. The one-time co-star of The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire reads on paper as the one recognizable name in a sea of unknowns, but so soundly yet unflamboyantly does she shatter her John Hughes image that she seems as unfamiliar as her colleagues. Sheedy centers her performance in the depth and movement of her eyes, a savvy decision when playing a top-flight photographer, but also an apt register of how carefully Lucy tries to be in negotiating the re-entry into fame that Syd has mapped out for her in the pages of her magazine. Is Syd romancing Lucy merely to secure a career coup, or is it vice versa–the magazine deal as an attractive bait for what is fundamentally an erotic seduction?

Sheedy’s performance maintains an incredible level of focus and emotion, a feat that High Art itself does not manage to copy. For one, the last chapter of the film involves a descent into sentiment that nothing in the rest of the picture prepares us for. Moreover, Cholodenko falls into her own writerly trap just as Neil LaBute did in last year’s In the Company of Men: her escalating interest in her story’s allegorical conflicts of Work, Love, and Ambition bleed all the initial power from an emotionally explosive scenario.

In the end, though, even if High Art shares In the Company of Men‘s tendencies toward pretension and detachment, it also recalls its Sundance precursor for its literate dialogue, nuanced portrayals, and admirable breadth of vision. Cholodenko would have done well to decide early on if her film was about three women artists or about Art as embodied in three women; her title implies a closer sympathy with the broader, less intimate project. All the same, she and Sheedy especially prove their mettle, giving us hope that these women’s talents will come to fuller flower than the story suggests is possible. Like Sheedy’s Lucy, Cholodenko will do great things with her camera once she learns a few brisk lessons in discipline and control.

Grade: B


Los Angeles Film Critics Association–Best Actress (tie): Ally Sheedy

National Society of Film Critics–Best Actress: Ally Sheedy

Sundance Film Festival–Best Screenplay: Lisa Cholodenko

High Art: Review – The New York Times

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in High Art: Press, Press

The New York Times
Jent Maslin

Jaded Artist and Ingenue In an Arty Spider Web

“High Art” is an attention-getting debut feature by Lisa Cholodenko, the rare filmmaker to acknowledge Calvin Klein ads as part of her creative inspiration. She mentions the ads for their subtext rather than their style. Interested in the collision between naturalistic, highly personal photography and cool commerce, she makes her film’s main character a once-celebrated photographer named Lucy Berliner, who is played by Ally Sheedy in a fierce, tricky performance that is the film’s strongest element. Spooked by fame, Lucy long ago retreated from the art world to live a reclusive, druggy life in an apartment that has become a louche mecca for her lesbian friends.

The uninspired plot device of a plumbing emergency brings baby-faced Syd (Radha Mitchell) into Lucy’s spider web. It happens that Lucy lives directly upstairs from Syd and her boyfriend, and that Lucy has a leaky tub. It also happens that Syd is bored with the boyfriend and that she works as a new recruit at Frame, a desperately chic photography magazine. Wowed by Lucy’s hidden world and fascinated by her images, Syd fastens on the idea of drawing Lucy out of seclusion and putting her in touch with Frame’s editors (among them David Thornton). It is coyly mentioned in passing that the magazine’s queen bee (Anh Duong, a painter and ex-model) used to be a receptionist at Interview.

Syd’s professional seduction of Lucy is complicated by Lucy’s sexual gamesmanship with Syd. Ms. Sheedy’s haunting, wily character is visibly at war with herself even as she flirts with Ms. Mitchell’s pretty young thing. Guarded, bony, startlingly intense, Lucy finds herself intrigued by Syd and the opportunity she offers: to shake off the heroin haze and dare to start life anew. Complicating Lucy’s interest in Syd is her longtime relationship with Greta (Patricia Clarkson), the washed-up German actress who drips world-weary glamour and drops Fassbinder’s name as often as she can.

Thus Ms. Cholodenko fills her story with novel ingredients and offbeat possibilities, held together by the magnetic pull of Lucy’s life. The question of what a professional comeback might do to her is enough to give “High Art” some drama, and so is the delicate balance of power between a jaded artist and a bright-eyed ingenue. But the film sacrifices any hope of raw edges and real emotion to its own chic sensibility, which is so studiously alluring that it overwhelms the story. In its own fashionably nonchalant way, “High Art” proves every bit as sleek as Frame, the film’s emblem of poisonous commerce corrupting creative purity.

By the time it reaches an ending of contrived inevitability, “High Art” has felt the burden of its own pretensions. Lucy’s noble superiority to the world of slick images is undercut by the unrelenting attractiveness of the film’s visual style. “High Art” affects a spare naturalism that looks worlds away from anything authentic, with an emphasis on studied simplicity and flattering light. Though some of the characters are so lost in drugs that even their sexual experiences remain incomplete, the film depicts them with incongruous (rather than revealing) clarity. A voyeuristic charge accompanies these scenes of stylish abandon.

To their credit, the actors immerse themselves deeply in the film’s self-conscious aura. Ms. Sheedy reinvents herself as a tough, fascinating presence, while Ms. Mitchell’s earnest bewilderment also serves the story well. Ms. Clarkson, in a devilish turn, is all the comic relief this film needs as a walking (or keeling over) reminder of the Fassbinder demimonde. Her Greta is all that’s needed to show how these women got lost in a world that time passed by.

High Art: Review – Film Threat

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in High Art: Press, Press

Film Threat
July 13, 1998
Merle Bertrand

Our little Ally is all grown up. Ally Sheedy, that is, the freckle-faced Brat Pack tomboy who’s thrown off her wholesome Hollywood, “Short Circuit”-era vanilla persona for this decidedly spicier, edgier and far grittier fare.

In this solid debut effort from Lisa Cholodenko, Sheedy plays Lucy Berliner, a tough and talented photographer who voluntarily pulled the plug on her career ten years ago. Now rutted in a listless and destructive cycle of heroin-chic slackerdom and mired in an imploding relationship with Gretchen, a blonde German former bombshell with an insatiable drug appetite of her own, Lucy is in desperate need of a breath of fresh air.

Enter Syd (Radha Mitchell), a luscious downstairs neighbor who just happens to be an ambitious assistant editor at the snobbish photography magazine Frame. Drawn first to Lucy’s pictures, then overcome by desire for Lucy herself, an attraction reinforced by the artist’s subtly predatory pursuit of her, Syd manages to jumpstart Lucy’s career, boost her own, and fall in love all at the same time. But not without a cost.

After watching “High Art,” I have to wonder if lesbians ever have any fun, as this was about as somber and moody a love story as I’ve ever seen. An extremely linear, virtually subplot-less storyline and somewhat ponderous pacing also hurt the film.

On the other hand, Mitchell’s Syd was winsomly naive and vulnerable, but what really tipped this one into the “Plus” column was Sheedy’s superb performance. Forgive her the “Short Circuit” schmaltz, folks. This lady can act.

High Art: Review – Compuserve

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in High Art: Press, Press

Harvey S. Karten

A major creator of designer clothes recently agreed under pressure to stop displaying photos of heroin chic. These ads exhibited young people dressed in whatever hideous and impractical threads were au courant, looking like zombies in their trendy raiment. Civic groups presumably feared that young and impressionable consumers would follow the examples of their icons and shoot up or snort–just to be “in.” In yet another recent case (the same designer?) an advertiser was warned about using models who seemed every bit as ancient as thirteen years of age. The fashion industry is, like many others including Hollywood, one based on hype and image, but perhaps the enterprise that pushes spin to the limit. The highly textured and beautifully photographed and nuanced film “High Art” examines the lives of those who create the glossies. Are they jaded commercial artists who are straight as an arrow and who cynically ply their trade for profits, are do they come from more bohemian ranks, selling out perhaps to raise money to buy more drugs? The prototypes in writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s engrossing work may not be representative, but they certainly make for more interesting viewing than would a bunch of square professionals.

Providing her audience with insight into the world of slick fashion magazines, Cholodenko has thrown together a group of three-dimensional characters who are studies in contrast. Syd (Radha Mitchell), a lovely, young, naive, straight, and ambitious assistant editor for the fictitious “Frame” magazine, is contrasted with Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), a been-there- done-that top photographer who burned out ten years ago, presumably disgusted with the demands put upon her by the industry. Lucy’s lesbian girlfriend, Greta (Patricia Clarkson), an ethnically German woman who has moved to New York so that Lucy can pursue her craft there, is differentiated from Lucy’s rich mom Vera (Tammy Grimes), a Holocaust survivor who has no use for Germans. Syd’s boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann), a bore who criticizes Lucy for not getting a position of real influence with her magazine, is world’s away from Arnie (Bill Sage), a heroin-addicted guy who hangs out with lesbians.

When Syd goes upstairs to find out whether her neighbor’s bathtub is leaking water, she meet the coterie of strung-out somnambulists but is intrigued to discover that the woman who lives upstairs, Lucy, was once a noted, published photographer. Ambitious to gain recognition from the editor of “Frame” magazine, Dominique (Anh Duong), she persuades Lucy to have lunch with Dominique and her own boss, Harry (David Thornton), and is flattered, even ecstatic, when Lucy insists on having Syd as her editor. The relationship between Lucy and Syd flourishes and, as they engage in some frank, though unconsummated, sexual activity, each is concerned about the loss of her long-term partner.

Cholodenko has done quite a job tackling some major themes, including the struggle between the demands and deadlines of commerce vs. the free-spirited life of the artist; the attachment of people to their constant sexual partners vs. the appeal of fresh ties; the impact that a chance meeting with strangers can have on a person’s routines; and the very nature of a person’s sexual identity: is it fixed or fluid? Cholodenko deliberately keeps us guessing about the true temper of Syd’s feelings for Lucy, prompting us at one moment to believe that Syd has changed her sexual orientation while at another she has us convinced that Syd’s feeling is merely one of infatuation for a person she holds in great esteem.

Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell give vibrant performances as two women who investigate and explore their feelings for one another, Ms. Sheedy breaking loose of her 1980s ingenue specimen, Ms. Mitchell exposing every nuance of a young woman at a turning point in her career and love life. One particular sexual scene has already become the talk of the sophisticated film community: Sheedy and Mitchell do not shed their clothes but engage in a tantalizing scouting of sensation and sensitivity. With Patricia Clarkson squaring off the triangle as a dazed heroin addict–a former Fassbinder actress hanging on desperately to a straying woman–“High Art” will attract a substantial following in the lesbian community and should cross over well to a sophisticated general audience of film buffs.

Rated R. Running time: 101 minutes. © Harvey Karten 1998

High Art: Review – Chicago Sun Times

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in High Art: Press, Press

Chicago Sun Times
Roger Ebert

To explain the special strength of “High Art,” it is necessary to begin with the people who live in the apartment above Syd and James. There’s a shifting population in the upstairs flat, since drugs are involved, but the permanent inhabitants are Lucy, who was a famous photographer 10 years ago; Greta, who once starred in Fassbinder films; and Arnie, an unfocused layabout who’s along for the ride, and the heroin.

Syd has just been made an associate editor of a New York photo magazine–the kind with big pages, where you have to read the small print to tell the features from the ads. She goes upstairs because there’s a leak coming through the ceiling, and walks into the sad, closed, claustrophobic life of the heroin users. And now here is my point: Those people really seem to be living there. They suggest a past, a present, a history, a pattern, that has been going on for years. Their apartment, and how they live in it, is as convincing as a documentary could make it.

In other words, they aren’t “characters.” They don’t feel like actors waiting for the camera to roll. And by giving them texture and complexity, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko has the key to her whole movie. The couple downstairs, Syd (Radha Mitchell) and her boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann), are conventional movie characters–Manhattan yuppies. It’s not that they seem false; it’s that their lives are borrowed from media. Then Syd senses something upstairs that stirs her.

To begin with, she sees some photographs taken by Lucy (Ally Sheedy). They’re good. She tells her so. “I haven’t been deconstructed in a long time,” Lucy says. Lucy is thin, a chain-smoker, projecting a kind of masochistic devotion to the older Greta (Patricia Clarkson). Both are deeply into drugs. Greta seems to drift between lassitude and oblivion; she’s like a Fassbinder movie so drained of life it doesn’t move anymore. She falls asleep during sex with Lucy. She nods off in a restaurant, and the waiter tells Lucy: “You know this restaurant has a policy about sleeping in here.”

Syd is on the make. She wants to move up at her magazine. Her editor, the often hung over Dominique (Anh Duong), started as a receptionist at Interview–so all things are possible. Syd pitches Lucy’s photos to Dominique. “She was so belligerent when she left New York,” Dominique muses. They set up a luncheon. “I made it impossible for myself to continue,” Lucy explains about her dead career. “I stopped showing up.”

Dominique asks Lucy to do a shoot for the magazine. Lucy insists on Syd being her editor. Gradually, by almost imperceptible degrees, the two women are drawn toward one another. Greta sees what is happening. But her hold on Lucy is strong: a triangulation of drugs, exploited guilt and domination. She knows what buttons to push.

“High Art” is masterful in the little details. It knows how these people might talk, how they might respond. It knows that Lucy, Greta and the almost otherworldly Arnie might use heroin and then play Scrabble. It is so boring, being high in an empty life. The movie knows how career ambition and office politics can work together to motivate Syd: She wants Lucy to get the job because she’s falling for Lucy, but also because she knows Lucy is her ticket to a promotion at the magazine.

Finally, at what seems like the emotionally inevitable moment, Syd and Lucy sleep together. This is one of the most observant sex scenes I have seen, involving a lot of worried, insecure dialogue; Syd feels awkward and inadequate, and wants reassurance. Lucy provides it from long experience, mixed with a sudden rediscovery of the new. They talk a lot. Lucy is like ground control, talking a new pilot through her first landing.

The movie is wise about drug addition. There are well-written scenes between Lucy and her mother (Tammy Grimes), who keeps her distance from her daughter. Lucy looks at her life and decides, “I can’t do this anymore.” She tries to open up with her mother: “I have a love issue and a drug problem.” Her mother closes her off: “I can’t help you with that.” Lucy is tired of Greta, tired of drugs, tired of not working, tired of boredom. Greta’s final, best weapon, is heroin: Can she keep Lucy with that? Or will Lucy be able to see that Greta is only the human face of her addiction?

“High Art” is so perceptive and mature it makes similar films seem flippant. The performances are on just the right note, scene after scene, for what needs to be done. The reviews keep mentioning that Ally Sheedy has outgrown her Brat Pack days. Well of course she has. (She’d done that by the time of “Heart of Dixie,” in 1989.) Patricia Clarkson succeeds in creating a complete, complex character without ever overplaying the stoned behavior (she’s like Fassbinder’s Petra von Kant on heroin instead of booze). Radha Mitchell is successful at suggesting the interaction of several motives: love, lust, curiosity, ambition, admiration. And the ending does not cheat. Just the opposite.

High Art: Review – Austin Chronicle

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in High Art: Press, Press

Austin Chronicle
June 26, 1998
Marjorie Baumgarten

Art, ambition, lesbians, heroin, and ennui all combine into a seductive mix in this compelling feature by first-timer Lisa Cholodenko that won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Set among the New York City art world denizens whose casual conversations comfortably encompass such rarefied reference points as Derrida, Fassbinder, and MacArthur grants, High Art is at once a naturalistic study and a style-conscious riff on a specific milieu. Its story follows the reciprocal growth of a somewhat ambiguous relationship between a jaded ex-artist and a career-challenged young ingenue. The beguiling young Australian actress Radha Mitchell plays Syd, a lower-echelon editor at a sleek photography magazine whose functions are really no more than that of a glorified coffee fetcher. Young and conflicted because she knows that even though she has snagged her dream job, she sees little more than a continued future of dead-end subservience and creative lockout. Her live-in boyfriend James (Mann) is sympathetic and encouraging. The transparently thin plot device of a leaky bathtub causes Syd one evening to knock on her upstairs neighbor’s door to check on the plumbing. Once inside, Syd becomes intrigued by the world she finds. The apartment above her is a demimonde roost, a hazy, druggy magnet for heroin chic lesbians and their brood. Fascinated by the unique photographs that cover the walls, Syd gradually comes to learn that her upstairs neighbor is actually the formerly renowned photographer Lucy Berliner (Sheedy), who defiantly pulled the plug on her own career 10 years earlier and moved to Germany. Back in New York now with her lover Greta (Clarkson), a drug-addicted former Fassbinder actress whose wearisome references to the dead director are as humorously pretentious and ineffective as if she were still playing a role in one of his ripe melodramas, Lucy is drawn out of her retirement by Syd’s interest first in her photographs and gradually in Lucy herself. What the movie explores is the extent to which Syd’s attraction to Lucy stems more from the new drug experiences, the undeniable lesbian attraction, or the opportunities for work promotions that her presentation of Lucy’s work entails. The lines between all these things are opaque and equivocal. High Art treats these questions with a strikingly naturalistic ease, a quality that’s also evident in the lovemaking scenes. But just as it imbues these abstract career and lifestyle questions with a refreshing matter-of-factness, the film also perfectly captures the molten one-beat-behind sensuousness of the drug haze. Sheedy’s penetrating depiction of Lucy, the bone-thin seductress despite herself is a career high point for the actress, and Mitchell’s Syd is a constant pleasure to watch. Well-drawn also are all the secondary characters — both the magazine hierarchy and Lucy’s layabout pals. Additionally, original music by Shudder to Think lends the film another unique tone. A contrived conclusion mars the veracity of the story’s escalating drama and provides an unsatisfying solution to the myriad questions the film raises. But High Art is nevertheless a work that shellacs itself into your consciousness.

High Art: Review – Apollo Guide

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in High Art: Press, Press

Apollo Guide

Brian Webster

Readers’ Rating: 87 (58 votes)

Syd (Radha Mitchell) is finding that life is getting her down. She’s a downtrodden gopher in her work as an assistant editor at an artsy photo magazine. She lives with a tiresome man. Her ceiling even leaks.

But then she meets Lucy (Ally Sheedy), a photographer whose work and bohemian lifestyle both appeal to Syd. Each of these women sees something in each other: Syd sees creativity and freedom in Lucy. In Syd, Lucy sees hope for a life without drug use and a way back in to professional photography. Each has a problematic relationship with a current partner. Both are open to finding someone new, and they are strongly attracted to each other.

We follow Syd and Lucy as they struggle with each other and the people around them. Nothing comes easy for these two. Lucy’s struggles with her partner Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a washed-up, drug-addled former German actress, are particularly compelling.

Mitchell and Sheedy both give strong performances. Although Sheedy has stayed active in the acting business in recent years, her roles this decade have mainly been forgettable parts in forgettable productions. As Lucy, she is anything but forgettable: convincing as a drugged-out and world-weary young woman. Mitchell is also credible as the dissatisfied Syd.

What is High Art trying to tell us? Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko seems to change her mind regularly on that score. Conventionality, commercialism and pretentiousness all come off looking bad, as does drug addiction. Should we stay on the straight and narrow or follow our hearts? High Art doesn’t help us with that either.

While its messages are ambiguous, High Art’s characters are compelling. It might have amounted to more if we could find THE point, but this remains an interesting and worthwhile film.