With her feature debut, Director Janell Shirtcliff delivers a film with enough style to strut across a model’s stage with pride. The visceral imagery it overloads our five senses with feels like an oxymoron; colorful and quick edits of drug use and hedonism juxtaposed against sacred symbols of Christianity at its purest, the former of which practically tainting the latter, like tagging a church’s hallway with gratuitous graffiti. ‘Habit’ is many things thematically, and similar to the film’s rambunctious protagonist, it’s not sure what exactly it wants to be.
There are two ways for the viewer to examine the movie’s inner turmoil; It’s an intentional device Shirtcliff designs as it relates to her protagonist’s own uncertainties and insecurities, or the film’s identity crisis is simply a flaw indicating the structural shortcomings of the script. Overall, I wasn’t sure where to land even after the credits rolled. And although ‘Habit’ is definitely interesting to spend time with and even talk to, like the worldly stoner who zones out in philosophical diatribes that may or may not have meaning, it’s hard to say if it was time well spent, and therefore difficult to recommend other Cinephiles to spend time with the movie as well.
‘Habit’ Is A Bizarre Mix of Genre Storytelling That Goes For Something Different
‘Girls’ star and former Disney actress Bella Thorne plays Mads, who first eases us into the movie with an opening monologue that describes in small detail a complicated and strained relationship with Mads’ mother. Throughout this voiceover, black and white images flash across the screen in quick cuts, almost as if they were edited into the film by mistake, immediately prepping its audience for its unorthodox narrative and controversial themes. From there, it becomes clear that Thorne’s Mads isn’t addressing the audience at all in her narration, she’s speaking with Jesus. But not in the formal, almost professional presentation one would usually maintain when praying to the son of God. Rather, Mads’ dialogue with Jesus feels more conversational.
In fact, you might even believe for a tenth of a second that there’s a sort of flirtatious undercurrent in Mads’ tone, suggesting a more intimate, albeit obviously one-sided relationship between Mads and the Lord. As someone who went into ‘Habit’ completely blind, it quickly opened my eyes when the film reveals that you’re not hearing things. Mads longs for God’s son the way the groupie longs for the rockstar, she refers to him as her one and only, professes a desire to marry him. To say the least, it’s a very fresh take on religious worship that takes things to an uncomfortable extreme, but you get the feeling that the discomfort is the intention.
Unfortunately, Mads’ personal relationship with the Lord hasn’t really benefited her much. Despite being a fan of Jesus, she’s not necessarily a follower, as she doesn’t follow the practices that come with the religion. She lives a promiscuous lifestyle in the gritty side of Los Angeles, she indulges herself in drugs, she’s foul-mouthed and frisky under the right circumstances. Mads is the exact antithesis of common Christian ideals, and that dichotomy makes for a fascinating experience. Mads’ roommates, Andreja Pejic’s Addy and Libby Mintz’s Evie, only help inform and complement Mads’ wild habits by sharing the same values; minus the Jesus fetishization.
To make matters worse, Addy and Libby peddle drugs for Eric (Gavin Rossdale), a washed-up actor with a side-gig as a drug dealer, with the two roommates eventually recruiting Mads into their world of underground crime. But after the three wild girls inexplicably lose money owed to Eric, Mads and her roommates must find a way to make up the money owed to Eric, or feel the unholy wrath of Eric’s ruthless superiors. The situation leads to Mads’ coming up with a plan so crazy it might just work in an even crazier world; impersonate nuns to help raise the money owed under the guise of faith-based charity. But the plan backfires, and Eric’s superiors are hot on the girls’ trail with money on their minds and vengeance on their hearts.
‘Habit’ moves at a brisk pace. Shirtcliff makes sure that the plot progression is fast and furious, so it never becomes a chore to watch. Even the slower moments, thanks to Shirtcliff’s editing and cinematography, carry a visual attitude to them that’s determined to keep you entertained. The film also hits the mark with its comedy on more than one occasion. Given the subject matter, its crass humor isn’t for everyone, and if you’re particularly sensitive to the topic of religion you might find yourself either cringing, or laughing before feeling guilty about it afterward. But without those sensitivities, ‘Habit’ aims to give you a punch-drunk good time, and it moderately succeeds with satirical commentary and sometimes witty dialogue.
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The editing and cinematography add to ‘Habit’s’ zany and neurotic personality. It’s reminiscent of ‘Fight Club’ and especially ‘Requiem For A Dream’, simulating for its audiences the acid trips and out-of-body experiences that occur when our girls are under the influence. So much so it’s hard to not feel that you’re getting a contact high. Powerful symbolism peeks through scenes like a different movie is trying to break out of ‘Habit’, tying religious imagery with Mads’ barely explored history and her perception of Jesus. The imagery is needed to add some depth, since ‘Habit’ respects its audience’s intelligence enough to avoid spelling out details. Exposition is almost non-existent, and the film relies on the interpretive nature of its art and its audience’s own deductive reasoning skills to fill in certain open-ended questions. Basically, beyond its raunchy vibe, ‘Habit’ does want you to think about its subliminal messages, which was an admirable quality.
Speaking of qualities that elevate the material, Thorne deserves a lot of credit for trying to inspire ‘Habits’ into reaching her standards as an actor. She injects Mads with the right levels of sass and vulnerability to make this Jesus freak as likable as she is incorrigible. Thorne has been filling her career with intriguing, risky choices to help remove the Disney stamp off her career to reinforce her credibility as a more than solid performer in her own right, with ‘Habit’ being another experimental choice that displays her range.
Despite ‘Habit’s’ brisk pace, some time into it you can’t help but feel it’s moving so quickly because it doesn’t want you to stare too hard at the story. The movie’s Christian themes, imagery, and satire eventually run their course, and without that crux to lean on, not even Thorne’s stellar acting reaches the highs necessary to wake the movie up. The high stakes presented in the first few minutes of the film are compromised for the sake of more perverse gags that try a little too hard for laughs. Meanwhile, the drug lords who Eric works for aren’t taken seriously by our boisterous girls, which undermines the threat they’re supposed to present.
If our protagonists, and the story itself, don’t take these villains seriously, then why should its audience? After a while it becomes painfully clear that the characters aren’t in any real danger, leading to an anti-climactic conclusion that mutes any point ‘Habit’ was trying to make. Because of this, the revelation that Mads eventually experiences feels wholly unearned and purely lip-service, as you get the feeling she can easily go back to her old ways with little effort at all.
Perhaps the most damning characteristic of ‘Habit’ is its lack of sophistication, or its ability to narrow its focus to point to a clear meaning behind its crass humor. The movie’s eagerness to translate its messages through symbolism is an appreciated effort, but the meaning of those messages seems sloppy and all over the place. At times, it comes off as contradictory or contrarian just for the sake of igniting a reaction. Even when ‘Habit’ is clearly trying to say something important, unfortunately, the film doesn’t have the gravitas necessary to pull off its more dramatic beats. And as the movie continues to unfold, unfortunately, the quality seems to drop as a result, and it digresses into less of a cohesive feature film and more like an SNL comedy sketch that’s gone on a little too long. As possibly the only person on Earth who didn’t hate the film, ‘Habit’ isn’t the worst movie you’ll see, and I can’t help but feel that criticism against it is a little too harsh. It had a spark when it started, but unfortunately, that spark was short-lived.
Directed by: Janell Shirtcliff | Written by: Libby Mintz
By Tony Stallings
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Tony Stallings is an avid follower of the entertainment industry who uses his passion for writing to relay meaningful, positive messages and narratives from the world of Hollywood. Tony doesn’t just focus on covering entertainment, but delving into it. He prides himself on focusing on the bigger picture, concerned with how entertainment culture affects and shapes the world at large with utmost honesty. Tony’s dedication to journalistic integrity, reliability and passion is a common bond that he shares with Hollywood Insider, and he’s eager to help people recognize the value of entertainment through their platform.