Movie stars can be difficult, but it was a cinch for St. Paul filmmaker Nicole Brending to travel home from Europe with the star of her movie, “Dollhouse”: Brending simply boxed her up and shipped her.
That’s not actor abuse. The feature-length film is performed by dolls, not humans. Shot in Brending’s loft apartment overlooking Dayton’s Bluff, “Dollhouse” is a feminist satire about a Britney Spears-like pop singer.
The lead is one of nine dolls that play Junie Spoons, and, although Junie suffered some broken (clay) fingers en route, she arrived mostly intact after visiting the American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland. Brending and Junie’s next trip takes them to two screenings at Slamdance, taking place this week in Utah alongside the Sundance Film Festival. (There are no local plans to show “Dollhouse” yet, but Brending would like to set up something with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.)
“I usually do live action, but I had made a movie with dolls in 2007 that was kind of a big hit” — the romantic short “Operated by Invisible Hands” — “and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” Brending said. “I have this sweet apartment and I thought, ‘I should make a feature in here somehow’ because I can do anything I want in this world. And I knew I wanted to do something about how young women are exploited in the pop industry, and how that relates to women in general.”
The result is “Dollhouse,” which took the Wells College and Columbia University graduate about two years to make. Brending regards the wicked comedy’s subtitle, “The Eradication of Female Subjectivity From American Popular Culture,” as an instruction on how to view the film, which Indiewire.com critic Steve Dollar called “a savage takedown of the Britney/Whitney celebrity-industrial complex.”
The film finds Junie groomed for stardom by a vile stage mom, turned into a performing robot by advisers, plastic-surgeried to within an inch of her life and exploited by several grim showbiz types until, as the title hints, she has been eradicated from her own life. Brending says virtually everything in the film, from inappropriate musical choices to sex tapes to gruesome surgeries, has happened to real pop princesses.
“It’s pop music as a metaphor for the Everywoman,” said Brending, who grew up in Mahtomedi and graduated from the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley. “It’s looking at [Junie’s] life from the time she’s born until she becomes a has-been, with her constantly being dismissed. She’s not the subject of her own story. She has no agency.”
Movie buffs will note a connection to Todd Haynes’ 1988 film “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” which stars Barbies. Brending, who crafts her own dolls, had not seen “Superstar” (withdrawn from circulation in 1990 over music rights) when she began her film. A big fan of Haynes’ other work, which includes 2002’s “Far From Heaven” and 2007’s Bob Dylan-inspired “I’m Not There,” Brending thinks “Superstar” is “shallow” in its depiction of Carpenter.
Junie does have some overlap with Carpenter, but Brending’s film is more graphic than “Superstar” in its depiction of the brutality of fame.
“The thing about misogyny is everyone does it,” Brending said. “Women do it. And in my film, everyone is held accountable because I’m covering a whole range of behaviors we all participate in and ignore.”
Some of Junie’s experiences directly reflect her creator’s career.
“For the amount of work I’ve done at this level, I should be much further along,” Brending said. “I definitely think if I was a man, I would be. I mean, I wrote a thriller and everyone called it a drama. I swear to you, that was because it was written by a woman. It has police chases, murder, kidnapping — I don’t know how much action I have to put into a movie for them to say, ‘Yes, this is a thriller.’ ”
The enthusiastic response to “Dollhouse” in Poland encouraged Brending, who is curious to see what Americans make of it. Some Slamdance programmers who argued on its behalf have lauded her on social media.
“If your film gets into one of these festivals, it’s because somebody was fighting for it,” said Brending, who partly funded the movie’s under-$100,000 budget with a grant from the Jerome Foundation. “I’m sure there were people who hated it, too, but for them that’s a mark of a good Slamdance project.”
Brending would love to get distribution for “Dollhouse” at Slamdance but said she’ll mostly take meetings for future projects. She has half a dozen in various stages of development, including comedies and — yes — thrillers.
“I make movies by myself in my apartment in St. Paul,” she said. “So you never know if the rest of the world is going to [care], but this gives me an opportunity to see it with the world at large, and that is always exciting.”