No one likes getting a ticket for bad driving, but in Adrian Murray’s Retrograde, Molly (played by Molly Reisman) REALLY doesn’t like getting a ticket for bad driving. Now playing at Slamdance, Retrograde is a classic buried indie treasure, a sharp portrait of a young woman who decides to fight that ticket with all her might to the detriment of almost every other aspect of her life, thus revealing that she is, in fact, a bit if an asshole.
The film opens with a beautiful still shot of Molly and her passenger – her new roommate who Molly is helping move her stuff – as they sit awkwardly waiting for the ticket to be issued. Molly attempts to convince the policeman that it is a misunderstanding, but he is not having it and she is somewhat gobsmacked that as a self-identifying small girl with glasses (the ‘white’ goes unspoken here) that this could frankly even be happening to her. Although gently told by a kind lawyer that pursuing it as a ‘principle of the thing’ is not worth her time and energy, throughout the film’s run time, Molly refuses to give up, dragging others into her obsession and failing to recognize basic gestures of goodwill when they come to her.
Molly is horrid. She is passive aggressive and needy and deluded and spoiled. But it is precisely Molly’s unlikability (and Reisman’s wholly authentic portrayal of the character) that makes me like Retrograde so much. It is, in fact, a relief to have the idea of a ‘strong female character’ not reduced to the literal concept of strength and agency, but rather that she is strong in the sense that she is a really fully fleshed out, complex and very challenging character, and that we are not spoon fed her story as it plays out on screen.
Something about Molly’s life – her dull office job, her dull home life, her refusal to let go of this perceived slight when given multiple opportunities to do so – speaks of a kind of passive, banal spirit of conflict that marks her wherever she goes. It is, in this sense, an excruciating viewing experience because there’s something just so familiar about the character; she is not a creation of fantasy by any stretch, and it is this feeling of so many of us having known someone like her that makes the film both deeply uncomfortable but profoundly rewarding. Retrograde is quite a ride.