Claire Oakley's coming-of-age drama seamlessly blends poetic realism with elements of psychological thriller to paint a bleak but alluring picture of the self.
Labelled by the BFI as a ‘psycho-sexual’ drama, Make Up is director Claire Oakley’s feature debut that explores the bleak realism of self-discovery through the employment of enlightening imagery that shapes our perceptions as we journey through the darkness and into the light.
Set in a cold and drab caravan park in a coastal Cornish town, Make Up follows the intriguing story of 18-year-old Ruth (Molly Windsor) as she visits her longterm boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn) to join him over the winter months whilst he works for grouchy park owner Shirley (Lisa Palfrey). Having travelled 13 hours on a coach to reach the gloomy caravan site, Ruth arrives to discover the dreary reality of life in the park, which appears much like a ghost town due to the fact it’s no longer tourist season. She soon learns the slovenliness of Tom, such as the dirt that coats his living room floor or the grotesque nature of his nightly spaghetti sandwiches.
Our introduction to both Ruth and the caravan park, who could be considered a character through its intense influence upon Ruth’s unstable emotions, is stark but subtle. She appears to be a young woman who keeps her emotions close to her chest, what we see is not what we get and this becomes evident through our exploration of the caravan park. Beautifully cinematic wide shots establish the overall gloom of the environment, from the movement of the choppy ocean waves that lap up against the dark sand dunes which overlook the vast ocean, to the haunting imagery of plastic-coated fumigating caravans that adds a tinge of horror.
Ruth and Tom’s relationship, which for the first 10 minutes appears simple and regular, soon unravels to display a couple whose lacklustre interactions hint at much deeper issues. The couple’s relationship parallels the nighttime horrors of the caravan park, including the peeling paint of the eerie caravans and the nightly occurrence of screeching foxes, which is reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s Red Road. When Ruth starts a job at the caravan park, finally gaining a sense of purpose in her visit, she meets the ‘rebellious’ Jade (Stefanie Martini), her mysterious yet exciting co-worker. As her friendship with Jade grows, Ruth’s journey of self-discovery (giving the film it’s coming-of-age atmosphere) develops in the form of sexual understanding and personal growth.
Jade opens Ruth’s mind up into her world by introducing Ruth to her collection of beautiful wigs, makeup, and nail polish (a visual motif which becomes prevalent throughout), while quickly gaining the admiration of Ruth due to her own comforting allure. An important line to take away from Make Up is that “It’s not about what it looks like, it’s about how it makes you feel”. As the narrative develops, it becomes clear that Oakley aims to open up Ruth’s mind through the juxtaposition of open-minded Jade with the uncomfortable attitude of boyfriend Tom.
What begins as a cinematic but admittedly slow-paced coming-of-age tale, soon morphs into a psychological drama that moves through states of distress and discovery to conclude its journey with the stunningly minimalistic crash of a wave.
Make Up, directed by Claire Oakley, is distributed in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye, certificate 15. It is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.