A trip to the gynecologist is rarely anyone’s favorite activity, but Maddie Ziegler has an especially bad time there in Molly McGlynn’s Bloody Hell. The “traumedy” made its debut at the SXSW Film Festival and finds Ziegler playing a 16-year-old named Lindy, who is determined to lose her virginity to her boyfriend but whose plans are delayed by an unexpected diagnosis—one that challenges her perceptions of womanhood, sexuality, and herself. Personal, raw, and at times wickedly funny, the film is an excellent showcase for Ziegler, whose natural performance leaves a lasting impression.
There’s a rainy quality hanging in the air of Bloody Hell, McGlynn’s sophomore follow-up to her 2017 debut Mary Goes Round. Lindy has recently moved into her grandmother’s old house with her mother, Rita—played by an especially thorny Emily Hampshire, formerly seen on Schitt’s Creek. (You can also catch Hampshire in fellow SXSW feature Appendage.)
Rita is determined to make the place feel like home, and Lindy seems to blend in seamlessly at school. Before long, she and her new BFF Vivian (Djouliet Amara) are chatting over the possibility that she might soon bed her boyfriend, Adam (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai).
Things do not go according to plan. Because she’s never had her period before, Lindy must undergo a routine exam before a gynecologist will prescribe her birth control. As she soon learns from an impressively tactless male gynecologist, she has a reproductive condition called MRKH syndrome. She has no uterus and a shallow vaginal canal, so she cannot carry children, and vaginal sex will be difficult. Her doctor sends her home with a set of dilators for practice.
This news is a lot for Lindy to process, especially thanks to the clumsiness with which it was delivered. She can’t bring herself to tell Adam, or even Vivian. Only her mother knows, and their relationship can be volatile. Before long, Lindy, once the star of the track team, is storming off the field at practice, ceding her spot in an upcoming meet. She tells Adam she needs “time” but won’t explain why she’s got a very specific, nine-month margin of error on how much “time” she will need. Some icy distance naturally follows.
Lindy’s one calm port in the storm seems to be another new friend, Jax (Ki Griffin), who speaks openly both about being nonbinary and intersex and wishing their parents hadn’t chosen surgical intervention on their behalf. Through her conversations with Jax and others, Lindy begins to notice all of the outside forces that seem to shape her relationship with her body—including a male-dominated medical establishment that can treat bodies that fall outside a very rigid set of standards and assumptions as innately objectionable.
Bloody Hell can feel tonally ambiguous at times, but that’s not necessarily a shortcoming. As its “traumedy” billing promises, the film treads the fine but wandering line between soul-deep disappointment and laughter. Moments of bitterness between Lindy and Rita bubble up and simmer down overnight, only to sweeten in the morning with a breakfast tray. Like most teenagers, this film bursts in the full range of human emotions, and sometimes multiple at once.
Ziegler is a striking screen presence, and she brings a quiet charisma as Lindy—an effortless athlete who suddenly finds herself struggling in ways she never could have predicted. As Lindy’s understanding of herself deteriorates, Ziegler makes her distress relatable and empathetic. She really shines, however, in the final act, once Lindy begins to regain her sense of self. And although Ziegler and Hampshire never quite click as a believable mother-daughter pair, Hampshire does bring a certain humanity to Rita’s anger, which in another performer’s hands might’ve felt alienating and two-dimensional. (At this point, the Schitt’s Creek alum has perfected that kind of sour sweetness.)
Woon-A-Tai plays a solid teen heartthrob as Adam, enough so that it almost makes one wish he had a little more to do. Amara and Griffin also feel similarly underused. If Bloody Hell underwhelms in any way, it might be that Lindy’s excellent and sensitive development can sometimes come at the expense of other characters’. Many of Lindy’s relationships with other people expose fascinating parallels with her relationship with her own body, but at times the relationships themselves can feel a little half-baked, with some slights forgiven seemingly too easily.
At the same time, this is Lindy’s story, and her internal emotional shifts are consistently visible and graceful in their execution. Given how many male specialists Lindy meets, the interactions she does have with women stick out—as with the one early on who encourages to approach her situation as an athlete. Just like track, this will take endurance; the vagina, like anything else, is a muscle, the doctor says—so stretch it.
Bloody Hell, with its blatant, on-screen Ginger Snaps reference, clearly understands how menstruation and its attending parts have been linked to the spiritual and supernatural; its chilly, blue-tinted atmosphere can at times feel almost Twilight-adjacent.
Although the film is clearly a comedy, viewers could be forgiven at times for wondering if it’ll veer into the world of horror. (Anyone else remember the movie Teeth?) Over time, however, Lindy’s conversations with others who can relate to at least part of her experience—the female doctors, Jax, and her mother—rebuild her confidence. Being a teenager might be bloody hell, but this defiant teen comedy is pretty bloody great.
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This post was originally published on Daily Beast
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