Helmed and co-written by Remy Auberjonois, Blood Stripe adroitly addresses the long-neglected topic of returning female combat vets. In the lead is co-writer Kate Nowlin, whose virtuoso performance zeroes in on the internal tumult a Marine Sergeant wrestles with after serving three tours in Afghanistan. Uncovering the scab of PTSD isn’t new, but the poignancy, confusion and pain so skillfully portrayed by Nowlin offer a rare glimpse into what our warriors face as they return home.
Foreshadowing marital tensions, our returning vet is picked up at the airport, not by her husband Rusty (Chris Sullivan), but by an in-law who ceaselessly orders her around. The marriage at this point has descended to perfunctory kisses, embraces, and love-less sex. We soon get the sense that Our Sergeant (we never know her name) is teetering on the edge, evidenced by increasingly untethered behaviors like cyclic beer drinking, midnight lawn mowing, and smearing her face with “camo soot” at an outdoor campfire get-together.
At a welcome-home party, a guest’s playful hug from behind brings out a violent overreaction that clearly suggests some kind of intervention is needed. Sadly, we’re made aware that the wait for VA counseling stretches past 129 days.
Trying to find herself through work, Our Sergeant joins a municipal road crew. But in a telling moment, she drifts off in a 1,000-yard stare as the foreman explains the job. We’ve crossed the Rubicon at this point as she drives hours to her childhood summer camp to reside and help out.
There she encounters likable Dot (Rusty Schwimmer) who wastes no time putting her to work, preparing the camp for summer arrivals. Amid the cathartic business of lifting, packing and cleaning, the camp’s pristine setting draw the women together in moments of sharing. We learn that Our Sergeant served as a Lioness—someone who ran checkpoints by day and house raids by night.
When the camp begins filling up with church elders led by gregarious Art (Rene Auberjonois), “The Fisherman” (Tom Lipinski) and other guests, she grows increasingly on edge. Her behavior returns to the bizarre when she encourages, then violently rebuffs The Fisherman’s advances. Things go up a notch when a hunter carrying a bucket of deer’s blood induces a severe panic attack, or when she violently carves up a flotation device she suspects of being a body bag.
We get a sense of past torture and physical trauma, not only by the scars on her back but by her episodes of overreaction and subsequent cocooning behaviors. Auberjonois could have resorted to flashbacks or some long-winded monologue to slap us in the face with our warrior’s past, but he skillfully and thankfully spared us from these overused devices. It lets each of us in our own way fill in the horrors of what she might have endured overseas.
Nowlin & Tom Lipinski
Nowlin embraces her role with the ferocity and dignity it deserves. While her performance is big in some instances, it’s the nuances that returning combat vets will acknowledge with a somber nod. Like keeping her dog tags on, sleepless nights, the need for early morning runs, adapting to civilian chow, and the fact that she’s constantly still taking orders from people. There’s also the need for solitude, to work things out in one’s head, to busy oneself with work of a physical “organizing” nature. And perhaps most telling: to not talk about “what happened over there.”
Blood Stripe received the U.S. Best Fiction Feature Film Award at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival. Recently recognized by Got Your 6 as a “6 Certified” 2017 project, additional accolades include: The Audience Award at the 2016 Austin Film Festival, The John Schlesinger Award for First-Time Filmmaker at the 2016 Provincetown International Film Festival, and both the Audience Award and the Indie Vision Breakthrough Performance Award at the 2016 Twin Cities Film Festival.
Blood Stripe Opens in Los Angeles on Friday, October 13, 2017. It runs 92 minutes. Check out the trailer: https://vimeo.com/229345772/896151150f