By outward appearances, Violet (Olivia Munn) is very successful. Her career is thriving, her beautiful home is under renovation to become even more beautiful, and everyone who knows her is largely jealous. But Violet has become crippled with self-doubt. Those nasty voices in her head (she calls them The Committee) have become highly critical and belligerent. She’s been allowing her inner fears to choose for her, guided not by what she wants, but what she should want.
Writer-director Justine Bateman insists that the most important character in the movie is you – YOU, the audience member. I suppose that she means that how we relate to Violet (or not) will inevitably colour our experience of the film.
The Committee is voiced by Justin Theroux: we literally hear her anxiety, always nagging, always insisting that she’s less capable, less valuable, less desirable, less worthy. Her innermost thoughts, the ones where she allows herself to be vulnerable and honest, to express her needs and wants, go unvoiced, never even whispered. We’re made aware of them only by writing on the screen. So we see the push-pull between what she truly wants, what her self-doubt thinks she deserves, and then the path she actually chooses, rarely the one she actually wants. We see her long for comfort and company even as she pushes someone away, and that inner conflict resonates so deeply that it almost takes your breath away.
Bateman has actually captured the essence of the human spirit. Negative thoughts are loud and cyclical, difficult to ignore because they voice our darkest fears. The heart’s private desires are so much harder to express; we fear their rejection so wholly that we’d rather not give them voice at all. But how are we to find happiness while repressing so much of our true selves? That’s not just Violet’s quest, it’s all of ours. To live openly and authentically is to be exposed. Violet is a grown woman, some would say in the prime of her life, yet she’s still grappling with this basic, foundational notion of self-image.
Violet is part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s lineup this year, and anyone who’s attended TIFF with any kind of regularity knows that by day two, audiences are intimately acquainted with the commercials aired before each film (often audiences will have perhaps even spontaneously developed call-and-answer reactions to each, which will haunt us all for the duration of the festival). This year, one of TIFF’s regular sponsors, L’Oréal, has a commercial starring Viola Davis about self-worth, about how it’s not a destination but a journey. I almost cannot believe that a commercial from the beauty industry feels like a companion piece to this thoughtful film, but there you have it. Quashing negative thoughts takes a lifetime of diligence and practice. First we have to learn to identify them, which is where Violet’s at when we meet her. The Committee has become aggressive, but she’s on to them. Next we’ll have to actively challenge them, which is much harder, especially for women who are conditioned to be deferential, and to expect less. Violet is fighting her fight, forging identity, worth, and satisfaction, essential tasks of adulthood. Between a lovely cursive font and Justin Theroux, we’re aware of her fight, but also subtly conscious that the other characters in the film must also be experiencing something similar, battling their own self-doubts, dousing their own anxieties. And so must we all. And learning that is perhaps the greatest lesson of all. It’s called empathy.