A work that is really two films in one (and much more fascinating for it), Kate in Oxnard is a coming-of-age story that subverts expectations. From writer/director Emily Tomson, the film navigates a young woman’s loss of innocence as she transitions from a breezy fearlessness that is the hallmark of youth, towards a more clear-eyed realization of the nature of the world. Via Tomson’s devastating juxtaposition of genres, and a standout performance from its star, Audrey Corsa, the film is an uncommonly sharp vantage into the feminine viewpoint and the precariousness of being a modern woman.
Shortly after the film begins, Kate shows up to a dilapidated coastal bar ready for the summer of a lifetime. What adventures await, she wonders? Money will be made, perhaps some cute guys will be found, all she knows is she’s ready to live life to its fullest. Kate’s eagerness is endearing, and comfortingly familiar—she comports herself in keeping with the societal ideal of young femininity—she is attractive, and in personality mixes equal parts bubbly precociousness and naïveté.
And, for the first half of the film it goes well—Kate in Oxnard plays like an older Disney live-action film, one from the 80’s: expect a bit of conventional hardship and some fallen expectations, but it is likely that Kate will find a mentor figure in the gruff older woman whom owns the bar, and perhaps a love interest in the stoic bartender, Sean, whom breaks the divide to reach out to her. Lessons will be learned, personal growth will be achieved, and Kate will finder herself a richer person in ways she perhaps did not anticipate. Sounds great, right?
And yet, things take a wrong turn. After a cliché, but enjoyable montage of a night on the town with the newly met bartender, Kate returns to the place she’s staying pleasantly tipsy. She wishes Sean a good night and collapses into bed. Later that night Sean pounds on her door. *Spoilers Follow*
The inciting incident that unravels Kate’s sense of security feels small, but is loaded. She does not let Sean in, there is no assault, and yet she feels violated all the same. The next day Sean confronts her—he was missing his keys, and thinks he might have dropped them in her place when picking her up the night before.
Plausible right? Yet Kate remains on edge, there was a hint of malice to Sean’s voice at the door, and when she initially can’t find the keys later that day her suspicions intensify. It’s a subtle move from Tomson to weave ambiguity into the narrative, and highlights her motivation with the film. Writing to us, Tomson shares:
“Kate begins the story fearlessly, only to have her best intentions betrayed by an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar place. Everything she thought she knew was wrong, and to me, that realization is an important moment in becoming an adult.”
It feels like a pretty grim outlook, but that viewpoint is undoubtedly my luxury as a man—can anyone doubt its veracity in the wake of outpouring of personal sharing that has emerged in the wake of #MeToo?
And yet, while tangentially related to the swell of #MeToo films that have emerged in the short form these past 2 years, Kate in Oxnard is expressing a point that is subtly different. Utilizing long takes and a roving handheld camera, Tomson and her cinematographer, Allie Schultz, are relentlessly focused on Kate and her perspective, which helps solidify Tomson’s case that this is coming-of-age film rather than one of abuse. To share Tomson’s words once again:
“I think this film is a cautionary tale about an experience many women can relate to, and I wanted to explore the subtleties of a situation that is not predatory, nor romantic, but could be either and might be both. Most importantly, I think this story is about part of what it means to be a woman in the world, how our sense of trust and security is often threatened, and what that means for who we become.”
With Kate in Oxnard Tomson nails one of the most pernicious elements of harassment, which is the second-guessing and self doubt. To use the term du jour, Kate is gaslit by Sean, and despite her instincts screaming out, there is that nagging feeling that maybe the situation is innocent, maybe she’s overreacting. But irregardless of the ontological reality to the situation, whether Sean’s motivations in his actions are pure or not, Tomson’s larger point remains—the mere potential for either scenario to be true irrevocably fractures Kate’s innocence, and the new self-awareness of her vulnerability will change Kate and her connection and presentation to the world.
Kate in Oxnard was submitted to us over a year ago while still in rough cut, and we were pleased to see its positive reception on the festival circuit over the past year, playing notable stops like Hollyshorts and the Brooklyn Festival, and most notably winning the top prize at the emerging Sun Valley Film Festival. Today it premieres online, and we’re curious as to the reactions it will provoke. Tomson is also looking ahead, and has a script for a feature version of the film, and is also currently developing a feature film about a secular guru and the dark side of LA’s wellness culture.