Movie Review: The Shallow Empowerment of 'Asking for It'
Wannabe Female Empowerment movie, Asking for It, uses strong female character archetype as a marketing hook.
Asking for It had so much potential. The trailer promised a hardcore feminist revenge movie featuring strong and assertive female characters. The sad reality of Asking for It is that this is yet another in a growing sub-genre of shallow, pseudo-empowerment movies that mistake enacting violence and holding weapons for genuine empowerment. The feature film debut of writer-director, Eamon O’Rourke is a glib revenge fantasy that uses diversity and inclusivity as a marketing campaign more than anything else.
Kiersey Clemons stars in Asking for It as a naïve young woman named Joey. When we meet Joey she’s working as a waitress and planning for life as an adult. Joey’s plans are derailed after she reconnects with a male friend from High School and, following a drunken night of partying, finds that she’s been sexually assaulted while mostly unconscious. This throws Joey’s life into a tailspin. She becomes deeply withdrawn from family and barely gets by at work.
One of the regulars at the diner Joey works at is Regina (Alexandra Shipp). I could be reading it wrong, but there is a sense that Regina is attracted to Joey. Since she’s at the diner everyday she is among the first to recognize the blank stare and fatigue that often accompanies depression. It’s not hard to imagine that Regina has a similar trauma in her own past that only further draws her to Joey. It is Regina who sets out to bring Joey back from the brink.
Regina invites Joey to a party near an Indian reservation. There, a disparate group of women have created a safe space for women with similarly troubled backgrounds. While the partying and camaraderie in this safe environment is welcome for Joey, there is something more happening here. When Joey introduces Regina to Sal (Radha Mitchell) it becomes clear that this group of women isn’t merely consoling and supporting each other.
A group of these women, led by Sal and including Regina, Lily (Leslie Stratton), Beatrice (Vanessa Hudgens), and Angie (Lisa Yaro), have begun enacting revenge on behalf of women everywhere for the crimes of men. Joey’s introduction to this concept involves a trip to a nearby college where a fraternity has just been let off the hook despite evidence of repeated sexual assaults in their frat house. Joey and Regina are tapped to go undercover and trick the frat boys into drinking a knockout concoction while Lily and Beatrice retrieve evidence of their crimes to show the world.
This scene could not be more awkwardly introduced, played and completed. The editing of this sequence is on fire as you search for the point of what is happening. Asking for It employs quick cuts and lighting tricks that I assume are intended to make the sequence appear more dynamic but they come off as chaotic and incomprehensible. I have enough context to assume what the intent of the characters are, to expose the fratboys’ crimes, but whether or not they accomplished their goal is very much in question despite the obvious glee the characters take in their task.
The plot only grows more confounding from there as the women set their sights on a former pick up artist turned right wing, men’s rights activist named Mark Vanderhill and played with wild abandon by Ezra Miller. The trailer and some of the editing in the movie may lead you to believe that he’s going to be the main antagonist in Asking for It but he’s not. Instead, a county sheriff played by David Patrick Kelly is the real big bad, a human trafficker violently protecting a greedy fiefdom in a small town.
The Ezra Miller character is never more than a cheap punchline which is reasonable in that the actual Men’s Rights Movement is little more than a punchline in reality. That said, the movie spends far too much time establishing Miller’s character and his dopey rhetoric without doing much with it. In real life, the likes of online men's rights advocates such as former pick up artist and accused rapist, Roosh V, aren't very well known or taken seriously by anyone but they do have influence among a sphere of easily influenced men spreading misogynistic rhetoric while threatening action in vaguely violent terms. Guys like Roosh are proof that there is a rich vein of potential mockery here. Moreover, Ezra Miller appears more than capable of making his character look like the fool he is while also showing the potential he has to be legitimately dangerous in how he influences other men to action.
There is a vague attempt at sending up the dumb rhetoric of the Men's Rights groups but, like so much of Asking for It, the attempt is botched in execution. A cameo from Gabourey Sidibe posits her as a wacky scientist who has invented a chemical weapon that castrates men, robbing them of the ability to procreate. The women launch a scheme to set this weapon off at a men's rights rally hosted by Mark Vanderhill. They manage to make this happen but the editing of the scene is once again, all over the place, and the actual effect of what the women have done is completely lost.
This sequence then ends with Vanessa Hudgens' character attempting to rape Miller's character. She's stopped and the moment is used to underline the trauma of our main character but beyond being merely provocative, and forcing Clemons' rape victim to action, why did this happen? Why does this scene exist? The visual of a former High School Musical star wearing a strap-on dildo and threatening an aggressive pegging is someone's idea of satire I suppose, but it does nothing for me or this movie.
The movie then goes on to botch the Human Trafficking subplot by not finishing the ending. Spoiler Alert: They learn where women are being held in order to be sold into slavery and they do nothing to make sure they are freed before the movie is over. Why bother introducing this plot point if it is not going to get a proper conclusion. This seems more worthy of a violent, reactionary revenge plot than any of the arrogant posturing of Miller’s character.
The problems of Asking for It are all over the shop. The movie teems with unnecessary characters who add little to nothing to the plot. Most notably, Luke Hemsworth plays a county sheriff who sympathizes with the vigilante women and sets out to protect them on their road to revenge but he’s never actually much help. His motivation is murky until it is laid out in blunt terms and it still has nothing much to do with the main plot of Asking for It.
If you want a female empowerment/revenge movie with some real teeth, look for the movie Burn it All starring Elizabeth Kotter. That’s a violent revenge movie with a strong wit, suspense, meaningful violence, and an arc that gives the main character depth beyond being just an archetype of the ‘strong female character.' In that film, Kotter tells one of the men who has been tormenting her “Anything you can do, I can do bleeding.” That line alone carries more substance than anything in the superficial empowerment of Asking for It.
Asking for It opens in limited release on Friday, March 4th, 2022.