A veritable mash-up of genres anchored by a determined and appropriately taciturn central performance, Claire Oakley’s debut feature Make Up is full of McGuffins and loose ends yet works due to a tight control over the narrative that keeps the viewer guessing at each of its turns. Using the windswept Cornwall coast as a character as much as just a decor, Make Up navigates from psychological thriller to coming-of-age drama and from horror to queer cinema within its relatively short runtime, and manages to twist these genres just enough to meaningfully inform each other.
It’s hard to explain why this genre mix works so well without spoiling most of the plot, so readers who want to go in blind should probably stop reading here. Ruth (Molly Windsor) is an 18-year-old teenager who visits her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn) at the end of summer. Tom is working in a caravan camp on the Cornwall coast and is trying to get Ruth a job as well. Living together in one of the trailers, the young couple is ready to move into the next phase of their relationship. That is until Ruth finds strands of red hair on Tom’s clothes. Has Tom cheated on her, and with whom? Who is the mysterious redhead that seems to follow her around but eludes every attempt to confront her? And what is up with Jade (Stefanie Martini), the slightly older co-worker whom Ruth regards with suspicion? Despite this wariness, Ruth and Jade develop a bond and a world opens up for Ruth. A world of confusion, as she learns more about herself and her relationship with Tom. Are the things she sees real or are they figments of an increasingly paranoid imagination? And why does she feel more and more drawn to Jade?
What starts out as a standard coming-of-age teen drama develops into a tale of sexual self-awakening, and Oakley deftly uses genre conventions and the audience’s expectations to underscore just how scary this realization is for Ruth, as if her subconscious understands where Ruth is heading while she is consciously fighting it. Despite their open nature the Cornish surroundings have an almost claustrophobic effect, enhanced by the fact that every caravan in the camp looks like the next one. As all caravans are hermetically sealed for fumigation to get them ready for the next holiday season, the mysterious redheaded figure Ruth sees inside one of them is a stark metaphor for Ruth herself needing to break out of something to which Jade holds the key.
With stark cinematography by Nick Cooke and an immersive sound design courtesy of Ania Przygoda, Make Up underlines the disorienting emotions of its protagonist, which she has trouble understanding and is averse to. Finding out that you’re attracted to other women must be a scary process to go through, so the horror elements are apt. The film’s final shot of Ruth bathing in bright daylight is like light at the end of a tunnel. Form and content become one in this strong debut, which does have its flaws (a fireworks-lit love scene near the end is unnecessary, and some plot strands get lost in the Cornish dunes), but presents Oakley as a talent to keep an eye on.