By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
This week I took a crash course in the work of Jeff Lipsky and discovered a director whose writing and directing style really impressed me. I would soon learn that the talented filmmaker had an amazing mentor in the legendary “godfather of independent film” John Cassavetes (See Interview: Jeff Lipsky, Director of Mad Women). Not to be completely overshadowed by his mentor, Lipsky has continued Cassavetes’ tradition of making independent films that portray characters in realistic and natural settings and scenarios, having true-to-life conversations. Lipsky has even gone further by challenging conventions and fearlessly creating scenes so incredible that an audience member could feel like a fly on the wall eavesdropping on real people.
Lipsky’s newest film Mad Women is a portrait of a mother and daughter dealing with their own past personal issues and the issues that come with new challenges they must face. Harper Smith (Christina Starbuck) is running for mayor, but she ambitiously wants this campaign to lead to bold changes in her community, and ultimately the world. While serving a stint in prison for a politically charged crime, she becomes inspired to take charge and change the world. Her campaign soon becomes only one of several major concerns in her life. Her husband Richard (Reed Birney) gets arrested and convicted of a totally different kind of crime. Also, before she takes office, she gets diagnosed with breast cancer. Harper’s daughter Nevada (Kelsey Lynn Stokes) has some issues of her own, yet tries to be a rock for her mother while working hard at maintaining a healthy relationship with her boyfriend Otto (Eli Percy).
This incredible film takes a look at what the public would perceive as a fascinating family. However, what goes on behind the scenes is even more fascinating and also shocking. Like his previous films, Lipsky has written an exceptional script with phenomenal character development. Driven by mostly conversations, Mad Women probably won’t appeal to everyone, but I found the experience quite captivating. Another element of Lipsky’s films which may turn some people off is the fact that he doesn’t shy away from portraying his characters in some very raw and intimate scenarios. He takes Mad Women a step further by portraying a highly controversial and disturbing relationship between two of his characters. As uncomfortable as I was watching these moments, I applaud his courage and boldness for going where most directors fear to tread.
I also applaud the fearlessness of his actors for their willingness to make Lipsky’s script feel as real and natural as possible. The movie stars Kelsey Lynn Stokes and Christina Starbuck as Nevada and Harper Smith. These two lovely actresses deliver boundless and exquisite performances. I had never heard of these two talented actresses, but I do hope to see their names in movie credits more often. Lipsky regular Reed Birney is a regular because the director knows he can count on exemplary performances every time. His work in Mad Women is no exception. Birney has a natural talent for portraying charismatic male characters, but ones whose vulnerabilities are laid bare. He delivers a beautifully haunting performance here. He may not get as much screen time as he has in some of Lipsky’s previous movies, but he does have a significant role nevertheless.
Even though the name Jeff Lipsky may not be a highly recognizable name, he too plays a significant role in the film world. The fact that he remains undaunted in making the films he wants should be acknowledged. Lipsky has obviously learned a lot from John Cassavetes, but works hard to give his work his own distinct voice. As a film critic, it pleases me to see a filmmaker who emphasizes script over style and substance over aesthetics. Young and ambitious film students would benefit greatly from studying his work today, as he benefited from learning under Cassavetes’ wing.