BY GARY M. KRAMER | There is something fascinating about watching a character make a series of increasingly bad decisions on screen. On that score, Laura (out bisexual actress Evan Rachel Wood), the reckless lesbian protagonist of the discomfiting drama “Allure,” surely does not disappoint. Brothers Carlos and Jason Sanchez, who wrote and directed this intriguing film, may or may not reveal why Laura is so self-destructive, but viewers open to exploring her disturbing behavior will find this daring film compelling.
Laura’s poor judgment is obvious from her first scene, which involves having rough sex with a blindfolded guy. When he goes soft during the act, she calls him a “faggot,” suggesting Laura equates sex with abuse.
She works as a house cleaner for her father William’s (out gay actor Denis O’Hare) company. Mindful of his daughter’s problems, he tries to protect her — but she is her own worst enemy. And trouble comes easily. When Laura cleans Nancy’s (Maxim Roy) house, she becomes attracted to Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), Nancy’s 16-year-old daughter. What begins with innocent flirtation and a shared smoke in time leads to Laura inviting Eva to live with her after the teen fights with her mother. It’s creepy and predatory, but Laura seems blinded either by her attraction to Eva or the power she is able to wield over her.
“Allure” soon becomes more unsettling. The two drink, take drugs, share a bed, and kiss. Still, the inappropriate relationship demands understanding. Is Laura attracted to the young girl because she longs to recapture a lost youth or does she simply enjoy controlling her? Is Eva interested in Laura because she pays attention to her and provides a more interesting life than her uptight mother? Or is this her expression of teenage rebellion? The film provides a few clues to answering these questions.
When a detective approaches Laura investigating Eva’s disappearance, she resorts to locking the teen in a room to prevent their living arrangement from being discovered. But she also tells Eva she is her soulmate and kisses her passionately. The vulnerable and pliable Eva seems to be in the thrall of some type of Stockholm Syndrome, which may put off some viewers.
For those who hang in without judgment, the tension ratchets up as Eva goes out in public where she could be discovered and when Laura’s disabled brother, Benjamin (Joe Cobden), comes over for an awkward birthday celebration. Why Eva doesn’t run for help at the first opportunity is not fully clear, nor is the question of whether William is aware of Laura’s dangerous behavior. What is evident is the length to which Laura will go in crafting lies to hide her secret.
Her rashness is precisely what makes this curious film so absorbing. As Laura walks the tightrope of presenting a public identity while hiding a private one, “Allure” invites viewers to puzzle out what motivates her. Is there sexual abuse in her past as is suggested? Is she mentally unstable? When is Laura truly being herself? Watching Laura reinvent herself from situation to situation can be exhausting — especially when she takes her anger out on Eva one minute and then coddles her the next. One of the most disquieting moments has both women shirtless and hugging, with Eva’s expression clearly signaling distress.
Wood delivers a haunting, nervy performance. It is hard to look away from Laura, even when she is at her worst. Her fights with Eva and William are disturbing in part because viewers understand what each character is thinking. While it is not easy to like Laura, it is also difficult to watch her hurt the ones she loves and who love her. As Eva, Stone makes her character’s transformation impressively credible, while O’Hare provides fine support as Laura’s concerned father.
“Allure” is no easy film. Like its troubled protagonist, it is both captivating and distressing.
ALLURE | Directed by Carlos Sanchez and Jason Sanchez | Samuel Goldwyn Films | Opens Mar. 16 | Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St. | cinemavillage.com