"The Dead Girl," written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, presents us with a string of vignettes that relate to violence, physical and psychological, against women, with the title character, to whom circumstance has been particularly vile, serving as the connective point. It’s grim, for sure, but this trip though several lives and their common emotional zone makes for engrossing viewing, thanks to vital performances and the winning mix of humanity and heat.
Five separate stories, all set in the Southland, transpire. Each involves a damaged woman making slow headway through a personal thicket. The discovery of a corpse on a hillside gets things moving.
Arden (Toni Collette), the withdrawn lonely-heart who finds the body, is inspired by the experience to break free from her abusive mother (Piper Laurie) and connect with a grocery clerk (Giovanni Ribisi), whose spooky knowledge of serial killers is obviously a tease on Moncrieff’s part.
Leah (Rose Byrne), a forensics student seeking closure to the years-ago disappearance of her sister, becomes convinced that the homicide victim in the morgue is her missing sibling and confronts her long-harbored grief.
Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), a bitter wife, makes a grisly discovery linking her husband (Nick Searcy) to the dead girl and must decide how to handle this knowledge.
Melora (Marcia Gay Harden), the victim’s mother, learns from her daughter’s roommate (Kerry Washington) the distressing reason her daughter ran away.
Finally, we meet the dead girl — a hard-luck prostitute and young mother named Krista (Brittany Murphy) — and witness the events leading to her death.
As films centering on corpses go, Moncrieff’s is shallower than "Lantana" and less compellingly real than Agnes Varda’s "Vagabond." The stories are uneven; Ruth’s chapter suffers from implausibility. But Moncrieff ("Blue Car") delivers the essentials. Her characters stick after their nearly 20 minutes are up. Each vignette transpires with sufficient intensity to emotionally resonate. The human connections have a charge to them.
Among the top-notch cast, Murphy’s a standout. Giving face and heart to the Jane Doe she will become, Murphy’s Krista is a force of character — spirited, self-destructive, childlike, deep-down good — who, reflecting the emotional hues on Moncrieff’s palette, touches you with her humanity. The same holds true, in varying degrees, for the women played by Collette, Byrne, Harden and Washington.
All of which adds up to a rather affecting portrait of misfortune and striving.
The Dead Girl ***
Starring Toni Collette, Rose Byrne, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Brittany Murphy
Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff
Running time 1 hour, 33 minutes