Blink too fast, and you're guaranteed to miss something amidst the clusterfuck of pop cultural references and contemporary philosophical questions that make up the surreal, pulp-loving Assassination Nation.
Written and directed by Sam Levinson, Assassination Nation stars Odessa Young as protagonist Lily, an 18-year-old student at East Salem High who's secretly cheating on her dipshit boyfriend via sexts with an older mystery man. At the start of the movie, Lily—along with her three best friends, Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse)—is just your average, social media-obsessed teen. But their lives change when an anonymous hacker begins targeting community leaders in the town, and suspicion falls on Lily and Co.
We also see Lily, Bex, Em, and Sarah attempting to grapple with the burdens of being on the cusp of adulthood, their blossoming sexualities, and the arduous task of engaging with a constant, overarching male gaze. Luckily, rather than being a mere projection of an adult man's fantasy, Lily is a cunning, whip-smart protagonist who wields her sexual experimentation like a weapon, and her steadfast autonomy is, ultimately, what saves her from certain death.
We had to sit down with the star of one of our favorite films of the year to chat about how it upends the typical "high school movie" narrative, the erasure of female agency, and why we just want to be understood. Read our Q&A, below.
Before I saw the actual film, the trigger warning trailer kind of gave me pause, because I was like, "Oh, this seems like it may be a little troll-y."
Like, it's gonna be like 4chan made a movie? Yeah, people keep thinking that.
I mean, there's a reason why we wanted to be so provocative in the trailer, because I think a lot of the movie, and the way that the movie works, actually depends on what people think about it at first glance. It operates on the level of lulling an audience into an idea and an assumption about these characters and this story. Like, pushing you into the idea that it's going to be this scenario with that archetype, and this is going to happen, and at the end of the day, we're gonna ridicule these girls and da-da-da. Then, I think the way that the movie actually works is by flipping that assumption on its head. And you can't flip that on its head if you don't lull someone into that idea. So it actually does work on that level.
That's actually really interesting. Like, if anything, it's mostly projection of the viewer. So maybe it just means that I'm cynical.
That's the thing. We want to be like, "Why do you [think this way]?" Not condemning the fact that you make assumptions about a movie about four teenage girls who care about their looks and speak in kind of that teen-speak dialogue, but we do want you to question why do you make those assumptions. Are those assumptions based on a judgment that you have on yourself or on the people around you? Or what you've been taught by other teen movies? And how can we work to change that?
When you first read the script, what stuck out to you about Lily? Was it the way she flipped the typical promiscuous teen stereotype on its head? Like, you can think of her as a complete "fuck you" to the Lolita trope.
Definitely. Lily's a smart girl, and it feels like she can talk her way into and out of a lot of situations. She's been put on this planet with an insurmountable amount of pressure to fit in as either the Madonna or the whore or, you know? She can never win, I think that's pretty much her main philosophy. But instead of resigning herself to that and giving up on it, she actually utilizes it for her own experimentation. Whereas a lot of girls would retreat—or a lot of people would retreat into the idea that you can never win, so why try at all—she actually pushes boundaries. It's something that I really liked about her. Also, in pushing those boundaries, she could get herself into dangerous situations. She might be more passive or seemingly passive, but, to me, her arc is to give up on that passivity or that cynicism and actually fight back and to really try to change something.
Let’s talk a little bit about the film’s premise—the idea of your entire life being exposed. It’s actually something that kind of hits close to home, in the sense that it's totally plausible. Even though it’s fictional, was there anything that surprised or freaked you out about being targeted by something as real as a major data leak?
Yeah, I mean, I think that it's in our nature to be really terrified of being misunderstood. I think, as humans, we find it a great injustice to be misunderstood, because then what are we existing for if we're not understood for what we're trying to do? I think that's the fear that I could really relate to. Like, no matter what you do or what you say or how you present yourself, there can always be someone who can take it the wrong way and misread your intentions. And in any situation, not just having all your shit leaked... If that were to happen to me, I feel like I would have to write a book about what everything that was leaked meant. Sometimes, our truest actions can be completely misconstrued—even by the people closest to us.
It also kind of plays into the idea that women have to explain themselves a lot of the time.
Absolutely, that's another thing, and I just fell into that. There are these expectations put on us, to fit us into a very strict pipeline, if that makes sense. So if we kind of squeeze out of that pipeline in the wrong way, we have to rectify it, scoop up the situation, and put it back in its place. What's terrifying to me also about the leaks is that there's no way to plug every hole.
The home invasion scene—spoiler alert—is a very physical exploration of that. Because, if you consider that this home is social media itself, or like the sphere of our lives online, there's always a door you forgot to lock, there's always a window that can be jimmied open, there's always someone looking through. And you just can't control these things, and it's all moving so quickly. We're trying to kind of move our ethics to keep up with it, but it's so difficult when you've got these unprecedented philosophic ideas presented to us.
Is this sort of rumination especially terrifying for you? As someone who's actually in the public eye.
I am, and I'm not. I think that, compared to the other girls in this movie, I'm really not. Compared to how I was two years ago, I am. I kind of sit somewhere in between, where it's like, some people know of me, but the majority of people don't—and I'm okay with that. Of course, there is a consciousness of the more you have people looking at you, the more they are going to analyze you. And if they analyze you, they will find good things, and they will find bad things—that's human nature. That's simply humanity. But, you know, I just think that [you have to] cross that bridge when you come to it—be an empathic person, be an understanding person, don't make rash judgments, and if you piss someone off, figure out why and either try to change something in yourself to understand that better or try to understand. If you truly believe you didn't do anything wrong, then you need to have a solid reason as to why you shouldn't apologize. It's not a matter of principle, it's just about thought.
Switching gears a little, the film also plays with a lot of ideas surrounding mob mentality, particularly concerning the way women tend to be persecuted in these types of situations.
Absolutely. That's a very very huge part of Assassination Nation. I think it simply comes down to, it's the same attitude that causes people to say, "She was asking for it." You know? That's the same idea that those people are operating on. Like, inherently, men are strong beings that are brought down by women. Women end up being the weakness of men.
The classic Eve sort of bullshit.
Exactly. And it's completely archaic, and I'd like to think that there's a solution. It's just absolutely fucking stupid. But, if we can shine any kind of light onto that really prominent issue, then that's a good day.
I think this film does a good job of holding up a mirror to society-at-large. Honestly though, for a film that revolved a lot around the sexual agency and power of young women, I was somewhat surprised to learn that the director and writer was a man, and there are some critiques floating around about that. What would your response to that be?
I just think you have these four women at the center of this movie who are putting their trust in this man. We've read the script, there is no way it ever could have been written by anyone less than an absolutely beautiful soul. Like, he loves these characters so much, and he always made it so, so, so clear that his main priority was making us feel safe. I just think that any critique on that is completely missing the point of the movie, because isn’t that the goal? To have a man who is sensitive to his own shortcomings make a movie like that in that collaborative of a space, and put it out for the greater audience in a way that it's making waves now? The other thing is, you've got these four women saying that we love him and that we support him and that he's a wonderful filmmaker. Like, do we not get to have a say in whether he should have made the movie starring us, with characters that we created?
Right, there’s that willful sort of erasure of your agency as well.
Exactly. It's like, no, we chose to be in that movie because we trusted him. Does that mean nothing? Like, we represent these characters, we are these people, there's an aspect of these characters in every one of us. And we put that trust in him. It's not just about him. The other thing that I've come across so often is when people forcibly put what could be considered a "female story," such as this one, in the hands of a female director who is considered more "appropriate" to direct it. However, you can have women in those figurehead positions, but what happens when all the department heads are men? What happens when all the producers are men? What happens when everyone working on the crew is a man? Will people actually look at that, or is it just, "No, no, no, it's got to be a female director with a female story, that's just the way it should be." It's not as simple as that. The world doesn't work on those very simple planes.
The reality is, Sam is just one of the girls, you know what I mean? There's no one that could have directed that movie as well as he did, and we were constantly taken care of on that movie. And we had a killer female executive producer, we had killer department heads who are women, and it never came up on set. I think that that says something. And I think that anybody who will criticize it needs to listen to what we say about the experience of working on it. Because I've worked with female directors and I've felt extremely exploited, and I never did with him.
One last question, there are so many amazing lines in the film. What would you say is your favorite?
"I'm not a bitch, I'm a feminist." I love that line so much—and that was, like, all Hari. She killed that one. But also the other line I love is at the end, when it’s like, "You can be everything you want to be, even the president of the United States. Just kidding!"
Assassination Nation premieres in theaters September 21.