‘Old Flame’ Barely Warms [BHFF 2022 Review]
Old Flame is advertised as, “A college reunion spirals into violence when two former lovers reconnect and rediscover a dangerous secret.” That led me to think they murdered someone in the past. Or would be trying to hide some terrible secret they are willing to kill over? I was a little disappointed when I hit play and got a glimpse of what seemed like attempted sexual assault. I made a note to include that content warning in my review and kept going.
Because this movie is also sold as a two-hander in a “theatrical three-act structure,” we have to assume that Calvin (Andy Gershenzon) is the perpetrator of the act we saw at the top of the movie. So, us getting to know more about him, his kids, and his responsibilities at this college reunion feels flat. We know too much and are waiting to see how we get to where we started. All his moments of talking about what a great guy he is are extra hollow. We all know this guy, and the movie confirmed he’s the monster.
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When Rachel (Rebeca Robles) appears we assume she’s the intended victim up top. So, their long scene, which is act one, where they catch up feels out of place. It gives us a version of the events that led to them breaking up in college. It also paints Rachel as almost an edgier version of Jess from New Girl. While this scene establishes a view of the chain of events that was their college relationship, it feels exceptionally long. As if it’s still trying to hold its cards close to its vest after showing them to us before the opening title card. We get the version of the truth that paints Calvin as clingy in college. So clingy that Rachel dumped him, but he’s carrying a torch for her.
Act two finds the two sitting down for drinks. We learn Rachel came here with the goal of talking about what actually happened between them in college. This isn’t the first piece of media we’ve seen where a survivor confronts the person who assaulted them. However, this one feels like it’s missing something. It also seems unsure how to handle Rachel as a character. She whips out a vibrator at the table while they’re still doing friendly banter. It feels like Chekhov’s gun, and I was worried Old Flame might try to muddle sex and sexual assault. After their he said, she said conversation, Rachel suggests they head to Calvin’s hotel room to talk in private.
The hotel room sees Rachel’s grand plan unfold in act three. As we build up to that though, it hits some of those sour notes of previous rape revenge movies written by men. I didn’t find it as rage-inducing as some, and I wasn’t as disappointed as I have been with others. It felt like the wrong notes being hit in a song. I love that men are trying to explore gender dynamics and call out the patriarchy. However, the feminine rape-revenge sub-genre is one of the areas where most are still not able to stick the landing.
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While I’m sure there were some good intentions here, I found myself wishing Rachel would move her plan along. We had to endure quite a few of her more questionable tactics to get what she came here for. This hotel moment shows us that Rachel’s character is missing pieces at the core to make a whole. Part of what’s not working is that she feels false when we need her to be the anchor in this kind of tale. I feel like Robles did everything she could with what she was given, but we find ourselves questioning Rachel for the wrong reasons.
Calvin erupts into a tirade detailing all the rapes he has committed during his lifetime. Rachel records it and sends that video off to his wife and boss. Calvin takes issue with this, and we get to the attempted assault we saw at the top of the movie. This is when the predictable things turn the predictable table, and Rachel gets her revenge. While the final image looks cool, I don’t think I found it as empowering as I was supposed to. I think having her about to use her vibrator to assault a drugged Calvin is an ending that will lead people to have some conversations. I also think this script would have probably been a celebrated play twenty years ago. However, today we would be reexamining it and wondering how we can update this story to make it a part of these new conversations.
Let me know if you caught Old Flame at @misssharai.
A lot of good intentions muddled in what would’ve been an award-winning play about 20 years ago.