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October 30, 2015

To this day, I find myself confused that Lea Michele was considered the breakout star of Glee when Dianna Agron could clearly act circles around her on-screen nemesis. She’s also gone on to much more challenging fare since leaving the series, including Bare, the first feature by Natalia Leite.

The rough sketch is a pretty straightforward staple of queer narrative: girl is bored and dissatisfied with “straight” reality; girl meets girl who rejects the restrictive confines of “straight” reality; girl opens up whole new vistas in which she can become a truer version of herself. The story may be familiar in its outlines, but Leite fills them in with visual poetry.

Sarah (Agron) is frustrated with her life in a small Nevada desert town. She’s working a dead-end job as a grocery store cashier, living with her mother (Mary Price Moore), and dating Haden (Chris Zylka), which largely consists of the girls poking through their phones while the boys drink and roughhouse near an old quarry. They all seem contented enough, but Sarah’s not satisfied with any of it.

She loses her job; “just not Super Town material”, her boss explains, with the weary disdain of managers who believe that their wage slaves should cherish their lot in life. She flees to her only safe haven: the shuttered storefront where her late father sold second-hand miscellany, now being sold out from under her. It’s the stable point she clings to, as afraid of leaving it as she is of striking out on her own. She has resigned herself to the same washed-out, humdrum existence she sees all around her, but one by one the supports are being pulled away.

And so it’s only appropriate that her father’s storefront is where she meets Pepper (Paz de la Huerta), sacked out on a couch. She claims to work at the Blue Room, a nearby strip club. But as a bartender, not on stage. They swing out to Reno for a night of fun. As it winds down, they talk about their dreams and fears.

Sarah gets a new job at a fast food joint, but before she starts work she wanders by the Blue Room, asking for Pepper. Soon she’s on stage as “Sahara”, and her life is forever changed. At least until her friends and family find out what she’s been up to, or Pepper’s past catches up to them..

Agron navigates this coming-of-age story with grace and nuance, though she’s an order of magnitude prettier than almost everyone around her. Her fellow dancers are blown out, nearly stereotypes. Even Sarah’s friends look either plain and drab or overdone, while Sarah radiates an effortless sort of beauty, which may help indicate that she was meant for more than the life she has in this town.

De la Huerta, on the other hand, always looks like she’s been roughly treated. Pepper lives on the margins, and she’s made bad decisions in her life, but as usual De la Huerta imbues her with her own sort of dignity and strength.

Leite and cinematographer Tobias Datum give Sarah’s time with Pepper a certain dreamlike quality. The club feels unreal, even ominous at first before Sarah gets used to it. The pair later share a psychedelic tryst in the desert — gorgeous in its pristine emptiness — that stands as the highlight of the film.

Whatever Bare lacks in new ground as a queer-awakening story, it makes up for with its calm, melancholy atmosphere that stands out against the usual melodramatic or relentlessly upbeat tones. There’s an honesty to it; between this and Leite’s comedic web series Be Here Nowish, I’m curious to see what she comes up with next.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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