High school student Ashley (Nicole Fox) finds few joys in her embattled life. Something of an outcast, she tries to reconcile her burgeoning sexual urges for other women while simultaneously remaining invisible to those around her (save her somewhat odd friend Chico (Brennan Murray)). Life at home is rough, as her single mother (Jennifer Taylor) hits the bottle a little too hard and is quick to anger. In order to cope, Ashley has been known to cut herself and burn herself with cigarettes, a fact that has been noted by her school therapist, raising alarm flags about Ashley’s life at home.
As Ashley navigates the sometimes dangerous, and other times simply curious, waters around her, she also meets an older woman, Candice (Nicole Buehrer), in an online chatroom. The two strike up a friendship and online affair that eventually progresses into an in-person meeting.
Dean Matthew Ronalds’ Ashley is the type of film that plays with the audience’s narrative preconceptions. When the titular character remarks early on that she has just started reading Catcher in the Rye in school, you begin to wonder if we’re in for one of those films that carries a clumsy hammer to hit too many nails on their derivative heads. Other elements hint that maybe we’re going down heavy-handed, familiar roads.
But for the most part, the film dodges the obvious and spins things differently. For example, the film initially seems to be setting up an abusive relationship between mother and daughter that is without nuance, but as time ticks by and more is revealed, we begin to see the bigger picture and grasp that it’s not just the relationship that is damaged, but those involved. It’d be easy to chalk this up to alcoholism and neglect, but there’s so much more going on here. Mom isn’t necessarily a bad person, she just hasn’t handled the hardship she and Ashley have endured as well as she’d like people to think; her actions are not acceptable, but they come from a place of hurt and fear, not malevolence.
The film also challenges the viewer with the eventual affair between Ashley and the older Candice, who she has met online. There can be a viscerally upsetting aspect to this, as Candice is aware that Ashley is still in high school, yet moves forward anyway. It’s initially not less disturbing because it’s a relationship between two females; Candice is still dancing perilously close to sexual predator territory.
Considering other aspects that are revealed throughout the film, the scenario becomes even more unsettling. Will this be another horrible experience in Ashley’s life, considering the horrors she’s already endured? The fact that it doesn’t end, or isn’t portrayed, in tragedy doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to accept, but therein lies the challenge to the audience. Something positive does come from their relationship, but the discomfort can be hard to shake and, male or female, you have to wonder why someone in their thirties thinks it’s okay to start, and escalate, a relationship with someone still in high school that they’ve met online.
Again, though, I think you’re supposed to feel challenged by the film, and potentially conflicted in spots. I don’t think the film is advocating that all of Ashley’s answers exist in the bed of an older woman; hardly, the journey she goes on doesn’t revolve around that eventual experience that much. It’s a transformative moment, but more so in that Ashley finds herself in a scenario that, while not necessarily ideal outside of context (or even in context), helps her become more accepting of, and confident in, herself.
Overall, Ashley is a strong character study of a young woman who is trying to find her own identity amid a world seemingly out to get her at almost every turn. There’s no easy answers or salvation to be found, just more trials to endure as she navigates her unique experience. There’s hope in the end that her worst days are behind her, but that doesn’t make the revelations and hardships throughout any less daunting.
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