What She Said is a film by and starring Jenny Lester about her character Sam’s friends and family imposing a Friendsgiving on her about a year after she was raped. Some are there for different reasons: her brother (Britt Michael Gordon) is there to stop her from dropping the charges, her sister (Paige Berkovitz) to ensure he doesn’t get away with it, and some of her friends because, well, Eli brought them there on the promise of “normal” Friendsgiving.
For anybody reading this who knows me: don’t read this. It’s not about you, and neither is it for you to know about if you don’t already. So please just stop right here, thank you. For anybody reading this who doesn’t know me: I offer my experience to you freely not for pity or suggestions or justification for the review I’m about to give. I offer it simply in the hope that anybody who finds affinity with my experience in any way allows themselves the privilege of watching What She Said and, hopefully, getting from it the brief release that I did from it. I hope sharing my experience is helpful. I hope it isn’t selfish or gratuitous.
Content Warning: This film and review included detailed descriptions of rape
I didn’t really understand until many years later, like, a few months ago, that the time that my then-girlfriend made me have sex with her at my grandpa’s shiva, and a number of other times, was rape. Honestly, even writing that sentence down feels like I’m lying or I’m making something up, exaggerating, or somehow full of shit. But that’s the whole thing with abuse and assault and violation of your autonomy. It breaks everything about you until you’re a husk of yourself and only if you’re lucky might you grow a new shell again and be safe inside a new self that’s loved and protected and fortified.
What She Said is perfect, because no matter how broken every person in it is, was, or will be, it’s a story about how none of it matters. Different choices or things that happen to them don’t determine whether they are good people or worthy of empathy and love. They’re perfect the way they are just for being. This is something I as a survivor certainly struggle with seeing in myself and people around me, but yet, I found immediate and unwavering solace in having masterfully depicted for the hour and a half that I watched this film.
It’s set in an idyllic mountain cabin that exudes decades of love and stories and unbreakable bonds, adorned with acoustic folk music constantly lyrically and attitudinally befitting every scene. So when all of that is juxtaposed against the screaming at one another that ensues as characters insist their perspective or their feelings are more important at any given moment, or the clear terrible communication the numerous couples possess becomes unbearably tense, the split emotions so beautifully acted by every character become visceral. You yearn for everyone to forgo their egos and love each other less caustically, but you also feel the anguish their love produces, whether it’s through Sam wanting all the people she loves to stop shoving their expectations onto her, or through her loved ones’ understandable frustration with how unreachable and unreasonable she seems.
It’s not about what everyone thinks or how they feel. But also, it is. Not in that it’s Sam’s job to make everyone feel better about what happened, that’s for them to sort out. But in that they’re the people who love her most, and for as much a right as she has to feel and act however she needs, she’s only going to have the chance to move on if she accepts the love she’s being given, broken as that love is. We can’t sit around waiting for people to love us exactly the way we need them to. We can’t make people be how they aren’t.
While select moments in What She Said are admittedly a bit Hallmarky in their delivery, the rest of the time it is just so well scripted and so well acted that by the end, the perhaps gratuitously poetic moments actually just felt real. The comedy of both the script and its delivery throughout keeps it from feeling melodramatic while the pointed Jewish-Millenialness of the family dynamic is also perfectly grounding for me, personally. They so much matched the subtle personality traits of everyone that I could truly and without second thought believe they might really happen. They also made me insanely jealous.
I get flashbacks still, all the time, nearly a decade later. And watching an idealized dramatization of somebody’s journey out from the darkest depths of themselves through the salvation of dear and dedicated loved ones was hard because I don’t have much of that. I’ve had my time of being interventioned by somebody who cares irrevocably about me, and continues to be lucky to have them, but they’re a signal pillar, not a whole support system like Sam has. And I’m lucky to have even that, compared to the unimaginable number of people who surely have less. It hurts a little bit, watching this perfect situation happen after something so terrible, even if it’s being handled by all accounts pretty miserably. It almost feels unrealistic, and that feels a bit despairful.
But, I also recognize the irony of comparing my trauma to the imaginative other who is worse off. And despite my jealousy and feeling like the unconditional love Sam receives is unrealistic, I still couldn’t help but be completely moved by the story and the conclusions its characters are able to come to. I truly credit the perfect set design, costuming, script, and acting for making me forget entirely about my own feelings and instead be moved by the feelings What She Said replaces them within its ideal reality. From whatever prior place you experience What She Said, just do so, and let Sam’s perspective wash over you. It’s a journey with a lot of twists and turns, so let it truly drive your emotions for you rather than try to predict where it’s going to go.
What She Said is not easy, but it’s also not about you. It’s about beautiful, broken people doing their best to hold each other close and hold each other up, even when how they do it is hurtful to themselves or to each other. It’s entirely perfect as the total imperfection of everything within the film offers the opportunity to reimagine what it can be to be alright again after the world is shattered, your body is taken away from you, and neither you nor your friends know how to help you put it back together in just the right way. Because there is no right way. And that’s alright. But it’ll only be alright if we let everything be alright and once we again let people, ourselves included, love us fiercely and unconditionally, even if that love isn’t always being done right. None of what happens in the movie is for granted, some of it may be fantasy, but all of it is exactly right because, in the end, Sam says it is.
What She Said is streaming now on video on demand.
What She Said
What She Said is not easy, but it’s also not about you. It’s about beautiful, broken people doing their best to hold each other close and hold each other up, even when how they do it is hurtful to themselves or to each other.