Written by: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell, Gabriel Mann, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Sage, Anh Duong
Certain industries require a level of ambition to reach the top where playing nice gets you nowhere and utilizing any resource available becomes the key to success. Sometimes it means leaving behind friendly fraternization to get it done. High Art brings this to a different level where it demonstrates exactly what a woman is willing to do in order to advance, especially when things begin to get messy between her work and personal life.
Working as an assistant editor for a photography magazine, Syd (Radha Mitchell) believes she has everything figured out but wants to truly break out in her new role. This coincides with her meeting her upstairs neighbor, Lucy (Ally Sheedy), who happens to be a famous photographer who mysteriously retired at a young age. As she gets closer with her neighbor, she manages to bring her out of retirement as their relationship evolves from professional to sexual.
The ambition embodied by Syd makes sense in a world with limited opportunities but the few provide the chance to succeed at the highest level. Something Syd desperately wants to achieve at a very young age. It’s what makes her jumping at any opportunity one true to her character seeing as her work rate matches her ambition. Someone who needs to move with direction and speed then meeting another who lives life in the complete opposite manner in Lucy makes for quite the contrast but one that becomes necessary in both of their lives.
High Art navigates with the theme of ambition for Syd in her pursuit to make it big but also the level of control one can have in their life. In this area, Syd stands on the opposite side of Lucy as well. I can relate to someone like Syd because she tries to plan everything out in life while considering all of the variables involved. My life has also been structured in this manner but this mindset can at times leave us blindsided to the distractions that come in the moment that can derail it all. This occurs for Syd with the presence of Lucy. Both from a sexual and professional perspective, this narrative shows Syd she may not have a handle on everything in her life and probably needs more time to focus on herself. This moment allowed me to reflect on my own way of thinking and approach to life, which always bodes well for any feature film to do.
Through its narrative, this feature plays some inside baseball with what it takes to work in the photography industry. It stands as one of those industries that runs underappreciated by the general public. With so many people carrying a smartphone in their pocket, they have the ability to take stellar pictures, which may confuse their talent with the ones of professionals. Anyone, in a sense, can be a photographer but to do so in a professional sense comes with a different level of skill. This film allows for that in the way it describes Lucy’s process along with what led to her early retirement from the industry. It becomes about more than simply lining up a camera and snapping a picture. More than meets the eye, which is always the case for professions people underestimate and believe the work can easily be done. This aspect of the film brought several insightful moments, but most importantly, added to the relationship dynamic of Syd and Lucy as it becomes less about the work and more about them.
Lucy and Syd’s relationship comes with plenty of complications, including both of them engaged in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. Surely, an obstacle that must be taken care of should their relationship get more serious than just the sexual. With beautiful moments shared between them, the romance they have keeps the film going, seeing as they have this fiery attraction to each other. A passionate affair burning brightly but confronted with the issues of actually completing an assignment and how Syd’s ambition begins to hamper it. The ebbs and flows of it carry this sense of beauty but also a bit of toxicity that will ultimately define the end result of their time together.
With strong performances from the two leads and a solid directorial effort by Lisa Cholodenko, High Art tackles ambition and how it relates to a woman as opposed to a man. It mixes this with the sexual awakening of Syd and how she manages to try and have it all with more complications standing in her way. A bit slow-moving at times but ultimately a worthwhile watch. Syd and Lucy make for a dynamic duo and one carrying this film to the finish line.