When 18-year-old Ruth comes to an off-season caravan park in Cornwall to spend the holidays with boyfriend Tom, the gloomy setting seems determined to reject her. Claire Oakley opens her debut feature, Make Up, on the ominous rubble of the stormy sea, and the sounds of roaring waves and buffeting winds are persistent in their presence on the edges of the whole film. The camp’s staff of locals identify the “incomer” in grumbling Cornish drawls. When Ruth’s suspicions that Tom might be cheating lead her down a rabbit hole of personal, and sexual, discovery, Make Up reveals itself to be a delirious, allegorical and image-dense merging of atmospheric horror and a gritty coming-of-age drama. Though a number of her ideas only ultimately manifest on a superficial level, Oakley’s hungry, intelligent approach to identity and desire is still arresting to watch.
Wrapped in an oversized men’s hoodie, Molly Windsor first appears onscreen as Ruth looking far younger than the character’s 18 years as she nervously bites her fingernails in the back of a taxi pulling up to the camp. Tom (Joseph Quinn) leads a fairly meagre existence there, living in a dishevelled, pokey cabin and working at the arcade. He is affectionate and playful with Ruth, but insistent as teenage boys can be. As Ruth’s illusions about her beau’s life fall away, she is sheepish and timid, never fully at ease. Her piercing blue eyes intensively scour the disappointing details. She finds a lipstick smudge on Tom’s mirror and long, red hair on his work clothes. It plays out like the start of a detective noir, as Ruth gathers the first clues to solve a mystery.
After getting her own job on the camp as a housekeeper, Ruth strikes up a rapport with Jade (Stefanie Martini), who is at ease expressing herself through dyed hair, distinctive make up and colourful attire. A grouchy Tom alludes to Jade’s “reputation” to caution Ruth off, but Jade is the only person who meets Ruth with ease and interest. She’s drawn in when Jade treats her grizzled nails and paints them a brilliant scarlet. Ruth complains that she “looks like a stupid kid playing dress-up” when she wears make up. Jade represents to Ruth the womanhood that she is convinced she can’t attain. Jade is the opposite to how Ruth herself is around Tom, frequently seeking his embrace or curling up in his lap like a child. Seeing the alternative only serves to feed into Ruth’s speculation that Tom might not be all he’s cracked up to be, and that there might be more to Ruth than even she’s aware of yet.
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To this point, Make Up favours a sort of heightened realism, with Oakley letting Ruth’s unspoken tumult manifest in unnerving ambient noises that batter the cabins and intense, fragmentary close-ups on details that fuels her confusion and paranoia. Gradually, though, the film indulges a more psychedelic, subjective sensibility that makes visual the torment within her. Ruth’s attempt to remove her acrylic nails results in a fleshy, visceral mess of bloody red, and the windows of the park’s empty cabins throb with foreboding, harsh white light. Ruth frequently finds herself alone in vast, echoey spaces, on tenterhooks listening out for every unidentified noise that closes in. Oakley lights Tom’s caravan in a cold blue that contrasts with the homely orange hue in Jade’s. In a moment of near-intimacy with the latter, Ruth breaks away from the mysterious warmth in fear and runs out into a storm to get back to her muted, dissatisfying sanctuary.
It isn’t immediately clear what’s shifting for Ruth, though, as her forensic efforts to uncover Tom’s secret lover and her increasing, but unnerving, fascination with Jade seem to coalesce. Windsor plays well in this ambiguous territory, keeping Ruth sympathetic even when her motivations and mental processes are unclear — largely because Ruth is as confused as the viewer. Without a clear fix on what’s troubling her, she starts to see horror in the everyday. Ruth sees fleeting visions of a red-haired woman that no-one else knows about, and a shock discovery in the public showers plays like a psychosexual slasher. It’s a disorienting experience as the sense of what is real slips increasingly from Ruth’s already loose grasp, and Oakley dials up the potency and creativity of her imagery, if not the clarity of its meaning.
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When Make Up reaches the light at the end of its twisted tunnel, its culmination is gratifying and sumptuously-realised. Its dalliances into the trippy and macabre are diverting rather than integral to Ruth’s arc, but the film is still a vivid and immediate experience. As a queer coming-of-age story nested inside a Lynchian headfuck, it’s an evocative and inventive work — well-performed across the board and authentic in its local specificities and idiosyncrasies. As a filmmaker, Oakley chooses to flex an awful lot of muscles at once — and if they’re not yet at full strength, they’ll surely build up with further use. As Ruth emerges into the calm breeze and soft glow of the dawn in the wake the film’s climax, it’s as if the violent nature of the setting was reflecting her, rather than rejecting her. Having reconciled herself, the unfamiliar locale bends accommodatingly to Ruth’s will, finally. The journey to get her there isn’t the most fully-realised or coherent, but it’s a beguiling, honest work of British cinema nonetheless.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.