There’s a crazy scene in the new movie Paint It Black, based on the novel by Janet Fitch, where Josie (Alia Shawkat) attends her boyfriend’s funeral. Upon arrival, she’s grabbed by her boyfriend’s mother Meredith (Janet McTeer) who blames her for his suicide. Meredith starts choking Josie, forcing her to crawl away as Meredith pulls the long, expensive rug out from under feet.
The scene is scrappy and scrambling, alarming, and even somehow a little funny as Meredith rage-sobs on the floor. It also becomes the movie in a microcosm: these two women forced into a volatile relationship who have to reckon with their guilt and grief. For director Amber Tamblyn, this was precisely what attracted her to the project in the first place.
“Janet Fitch writes the way women think in a way that is so different and poetic and brutal,” Tamblyn says. “She really knows how to write messed-up, imperfect, violent protagonists. I don’t think we have enough of that in film.”
Back in 2004, none other than Amy Poehler gave Tamblyn a copy of Fitch’s book. After reading Paint It Black, she was immediately struck with the idea this would make a good film. At that point, Tamblyn was focused solely on acting. She was then starring as the title character on Joan of Arcadia while filming her role as Tibby in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. In the more than a decade since, Tamblyn has explored creative paths beyond acting: In 2015, she released a collection of poems, Dark Sparkler, with Harper Collins, and she has also written frequently for Bust magazine. All the while, she had been working on her directorial debut in Paint It Black, which has been eight years in the making.
“I always watched how directors worked, with no intention of really wanting to direct. I was initially kind of scared,” says Tamblyn. “But once I said yes, I was like, ‘yeah, why don’t I direct? I totally know how to make this movie.’ Then I was like a train that couldn’t be stopped.”
The result is a movie that is shadowy and tense as it explores the relationship between Josie and Meredith. At times it feels reminiscent of Todd Haynes’s Carol, due in no small part to McTeer’s Cate Blanchett-infused bone structure and sophistication. Shawkat, meanwhile, is the perfect punky Josie, managing to appear lovable and not-so-lovable as she works through her boyfriend’s death.
One ethos of the film is perhaps the opposite of Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why, which also explores the aftermath of suicide. Where Thirteen Reasons Why is blunt and explicit with the causes of Hannah Baker’s suicide, Paint It Black is more realistically murky. Everything is in flux and even the suspected reasons for why Michael (Rhys Wakefield) killed himself show themselves as incomplete.
“The way I wanted to talk about [suicide] in my film was to not talk about it,” Tamblyn says. “It was to leave a lot of blanks and make it more about the people who were left behind. I don’t think we get to have answers. Certainly, in this story, you don’t get to know why something happens. You don’t get to know why somebody took their life.”
Tamblyn’s next project is another debut: She’ll star in Gina Gionfriddo’s off-Broadway play Can You Forgive Her? which opens May 23 and runs through June 11. Her character Miranda is yet another complex woman who’s dealing with debt, a sugar daddy, and a murderous date. The role is a reflection of the kind of career Tamblyn wants to have going forward.
“In the current political climate and the world we live in, I’m no longer interested in playing or dealing with or talking about or writing women who aren’t complex on several levels,” Tamblyn says. “To me, there’s not a conversation that should not involve gender and race anymore. I want to keep writing about women who I might not necessarily like and who the country might not necessarily like.”