When you watch Allure, you might wonder how co-screenwriters/directors Carlos and Jason Sanchez wrote such an incredible film with rich, different, and difficult leading roles for two women who share most of their screentime together. It all made much more sense, unfortunately, learning that it’s because the part played by Evan Rachel Wood was written for a man.
Allure (originally titled A Worthy Companion when it premiered at TIFF this past fall) is better for its gender swap, both because it offers an inspired portrayal of sexual assault and coercion as it relates to two women, and because Wood is the kind of actor who can elevate what’s on the page to the point of otherworldliness. Despite being a highly recognizable star who has been inside our homes since Once & Again and is back soon with Season 2 of Westworld, Wood’s strong suit is making viewers forget her past projects, completely inhabiting the new human (or in Westworld‘s case, robot) she is becoming to tell an entirely new story. Her habit of choosing work that has something to say rather than existing for any kind of explicit monetary-gain or popularity contest gives everything she does a seal of approval, and Allure is certainly no different.
Wood stars as Laura Drake, a young woman who works at her father’s cleaning company and does sex work on the side for extra cash. Laura and her father (Denis O’Hare) have a contentious relationship, to say the least. It’s made clear early on that he has sexually assaulted her, something Laura reminds him of in moments he attempts to slut shame or denigrate her. It’s also made clear that she prefers women. Laura is fired from one job cleaning a home after a sexual relationship with a woman client ended poorly. But she needs the money, and her father wants to keep Laura close, so she starts at a new house of a mother and her teen daughter, Eva (Julia Sarah Stone).
Laura takes an immediate liking to Eva, who feels stifled by her mother’s preference to keep her playing classical piano instead of the more modern music she’d prefer. Spotting a Nirvana poster on her bedroom wall, Laura strikes up a conversation with Eva that leads to an unlikely friendship. But Laura actually listens to Eva–she thinks Eva is worth listening to at a time when Eva is feeling particularly unheard. Her mom is selling their home, and they are to move in with her mom’s boyfriend. Eva is not pleased.
Laura takes advantage of Eva’s want to leave her situation, and provides an out: Eva can come stay with her for a while. But when Eva runs away, she doesn’t understand that Laura’s want is for Eva to become beholden to her, as Laura is struggling with the fallout from her father’s rape, as well other traumas that have led her to alcohol, drugs, and instability. Eva isn’t interested in Laura in a romantic or sexual way, but feels trapped by what she’s made to feel is a choice she made and is now stuck with. Laura’s threats, emotional manipulation, and eventual violence set Eva up for Stockholm Syndrome in a way rarely explored on screen, especially as it relates to two women.
“The thing that I was most nervous about was really doing justice to the story,” Stone tells INTO. “Especially considering this is a somewhat true story for a lot of people, and I was nervous about telling that as authentically as I possibly could.”
Stone (best known for her work on Season 2 of The Killing and SyFy’s Aftermath) says the script wowed her.
“I was immediately struck by how nuanced and complex Carlos and Jason were able to tell this story,” she says, “and I hadn’t seen it portrayed like that before, with all of the different, really important complexities that go into this kind of relationship. And I think that’s the most important part of the film.”
Outside of the subject matter and the way it’s handled carefully but not preciously, Allure is perfectly cast. Stone is able to match Wood in her vulnerability and rage, creating the believable connection but palpable fear Eva is feeling with Laura. And for Laura, Wood is as sympathetic as she issadistic.
“There are moments where Eva really feels connected to Laura and really feels that sense of belonging and self-worth that she’s never really gotten before,” Stone said. “And so that’s one of the reasons that I was so drawn to this film–because I don’t think that this kind of relationship could have ever been shown in such a complex way where we see all of the sides of it. I thought it was so important to create that compassion and empathy and understanding from the audience when they’re seeing Eva’s internal conflict over this relationship.”
Both a psychological thriller and a case study, Allure stands out from other similar on-screen depictions of abuse simply because it focuses on two women that aren’t related. So often, viewers are given the narrative of disturbed men who seek to control and hold women captive, or a crazed mother who mistreats her own children, feeling powerless in the world outside her own home. But with Laura being the central character, both the abuser and the abused, Allure offers a realistic portrait of a conflicted person whose uninvestigated childhood trauma dictates a lot of her adulthood.
And for Eva, who isn’t looking for romance with Laura, but a companionship that she hasn’t been able to find elsewhere, she’s just beginning to learn what love is, and therefore, what love is not.
“It’s not a lesbian love story,” Stone says. “It’s about two people who are so starved to perfection and so desperate to feel connected to another person that they find each other, and they find that in each other and they become kind of entangled in this really toxic web of attachment. Maybe Eva could be questioning her sexuality, I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s really relevant to the reasons that she is so attached to Laura.”
Wood’s being a part of such a film is especially poignant. An openly bisexual woman who has also spoken out about her own rape and sexual abuse (including testifying at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on sexual assault survivors’ late February), Wood provides a much-needed heart to a character that on the page might be without redemption. In Allure, she encapsulates what it is to be a queer woman who is also a survivor of sexual abuse, one that hasn’t had the access to mental health professionals or other help she desperately needs–the kind of help she was able to find in her own life.
“She shows up 110% every single time and really, she created such a great, a very safe environment to be able to feel that kind of vulnerability and connection that was so important for this film,” Stone says of working with Wood. “She was the greatest partner I could have asked for.”
Stone says she hopes Allure will “inspire more compassion and understanding of people who are trapped in these kinds of relationships.”
“There’s such a narrative of ‘Why didn’t they leave if they were being abused? Why did they stay in that relationship?’ And I think that that is so harmful, and it’s such a victim blaming mentality. I think one of the most important parts of the film is how compassionate of a lens it puts on that dynamic,” she continues, “and so I hope that audiences come away from it with a deeper understanding of how many nuances go into that relationship and the reasons that people might stay.”
Allure opens in theaters tomorrow.