Mentorship, Infatuation and Statutory Rape: Navigating Forbidden Lines in Una and The Girl in the Book
Revisiting films and shows that deal with sexual assault and abuse, since late 2017 (when Hollywood had the start of an official reckoning) is often strange, and always uncomfortable, not only because of the difficult subject matter; but because of the way the storytelling feels inevitably different.
In other words: I often wonder whether filmmakers would be so keen to release films with thorny lessons and blurred morals about rape and other kinds of violations today, and if so, whether these films would have been received with the same level of acclaim.
In a time where victims and survivors of trauma are rightfully having their narratives prioritized over those involving the motivations of their abusers, can films and television afford to tread vaguely on the line between appropriateness and inappropriateness?
It’s in this particular mindset that I rewatched two films that had nestled in the back of my conscience for a while, although I could not immediately point out why: giving them a second look in 2018 made it crystal clear.
Una (2016) is based on David Harrower’s Scottish play Blackbird, and focuses on a young woman, the titular character, who disrupts the life of Ray, a much older man, by appearing at his workplace one morning. Fifteen years earlier, when she was thirteen years old, he engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with her — at least that is how it is framed.
To be more accurate: it was statutory rape.
The Girl In the Book (2015), directed by Marya Cohn operates on a similar premise. Alice is a twenty-eight year old editorial assistant, whose life is upended when the man who seduced her as a thirteen-year old re-enters her life, one day.
Both films, in their own ways, show the dysfunction that emerged from the relationship between the (then) girls and the older men who robbed them of their childhood. Both women are emotionally damaged and incapable of leading normal lives or having a healthy rapport with others. Both have a detached, cavalier attitude toward sex, and treat their potential love interests with equal parts fear and ravenous longing. This extends to their families: Una shuts her mother out of her life, and Alice has strained, loaded exchanges with her parents (although as I’ll detail later, there is a particularly ugly reason for this).
Both films are also similar because the older men in question are not strangers: Ray is able to infiltrate Una’s life because he is her next-door neighbor and father's close friend, and has intimate insight into how lonely and vulnerable she truly is. Milan, the man from Alice’s past, is able to approach her because he is a successful writer working with her father, a famed literary agent; he uses the fact that Alice wants to be a writer herself to mentor and groom her.
Ray and Milan, essentially, manipulate the girls they know to be not only hungry for attention, but incredibly bright and precocious: they take full advantage of that by acting as confidantes and surrogates fathers. Later, when the girls are left to deal with the fallout of their statutory rapes, it is this precise fact that becomes the predators’ greatest leverage. Not only are Alice and Una subtly pressured into silence — because which of their oblivious and/or negligent parents would notice, let alone believe them? — they are not even initially compelled to tell anyone, because they are too young to understand that what happened to them wasn't friendly or loving.
Much of the similarities between the films end there: from the moment the assaults happen, the events start to diverge.
In Una, punitive action is swift: after unsuccessfully trying to run away with her, Ray is arrested, put on trial, and jailed for a few years. Una’s heartbroken father dies shortly after the incident, and Una herself, now a twenty-eight year old, lives an aimless life with her overwhelmed mother.
Milan, the writer in The Girl in the Book, on the other hand, is not only still a free man, but he is an abrasive presence in Alice’s life. Although her parents know what happened to her, the incident was dismissed at the time as the infatuated ramblings of a teenaged girl, and their friendship with Milan has never suffered from it. They are, in fact, on very good terms.
This is a man whose power, influence and privilege have been — and still are — an armor he wields very knowingly: much of the plot of the film revolves around the fact that Milan’s best-selling novel is in fact a thinly-veiled account of Alice’s life and their encounter. The book’s popularity and the rockstar status Milan enjoys not only ensure that she will never escape his presence: to make matters worse, Milan has stolen many of the writing ideas she confided to him as a child, knowing that nobody would believe her if she protested. He swaggers back into her personal and professional sphere with the same entitlement he displayed years ago, sending her on an emotional spiral. Unlike Una whom everyone treats as a victim of a predator’s attentions, Alice bears the entire damage on her shoulders.
This is not to say that Ray hasn’t, in his own way, escaped a certain accountability. He has successfully rebuilt his life, is now married, holds a high-ranking job in a different town and under a new name, Pete.
The contrast between the films gets even deeper from here.
It is notable that while Alice’s adult life is intruded upon by Milan, Una is the one who tracks down and confronts Ray/Pete, and this makes all the difference: because unlike what it initially seems like, the plot twist is that Una is not there for revenge. At least not completely.
One of the many flashbacks provided in the film sheds a horrifying light on this part of their toxic dynamic. As mentioned previously, Ray and a teenaged Una run away and check into a small hotel for the night. Seemingly realizing the folly of his disgusting action, Ray steps out to take a breather as soon as they arrive, and ends up staying away for a few hours. Una begins to fret, and goes looking for him, and in the ensuing miscommunication, Una thinks he has abandoned her, and he thinks, upon returning to the room, that she has fled. It is shortly afterward that the police is called, and their tryst is discovered. In another heart-wrenching flashback set during the trial, a tearful young Una demands to know where Ray is, proclaiming that she loves him, at the horror of her parents and the rest of the people in court.
The film makes clear that presently, this fact has not changed: Una has been in arrested development since Ray’s abrupt departure from her life, and she has come looking for him for some sort of validation, some sort of explanation as to what happened. When she realizes the misunderstanding (he didn’t leave her, he thought she had left him), it’s as if the barriers of her pretense have fallen away. She is eager to continue where they left off, because she is still convinced that they are star-crossed lovers who deserve another chance.
At Una’s core is a hunter-prey dynamic that flips, once the adult Una comes to find Ray, and this recodes the initial and subsequent fear he displays upon seeing her again in a decidedly different light: throughout the day, she roams his workplace like a specter, refusing to leave until he speaks to her. He tries to run, tries to hide, tries to get his coworkers to deflect her attention, to no avail. Even when the film prods under the genteel surface of Ray’s attitude — his wife has a thirteen-year old daughter whom he may or may not be interested in; additionally, Ray initially tells Una his wife knows about his past, but this is a lie — it never truly takes his personal inventory, the way it does Una. He is a wary man trying to let down a clingy girl who won’t take “no” for an answer, rather than a man afraid to confront the girl he took advantage of when she was a child.
It is harrowing for us to slowly realize that, following this logic, it is not Ray molesting her that Una feels was holding her back all these years: but rather the fact that he may not have loved her at all. The only thing that pacifies her, at the end of the film, is Ray softly stroking her face and assuring her that she was “the only one” for him: and I can’t pretend that this doesn’t bother me.
While a similar moment of infatuation occurs for Alice (she is attracted to an older man who is more caring than her emotionally barren father, and who compliments her talents when everyone else dismisses them), you get that she has since understood the nature of their relationship. Maybe Una is more vulnerable, or maybe Alice is simply more guarded. She holds back slightly, even as Milan escalates his affections, from kissing, to making out, to coaxing her into sleeping with him. Perhaps it is the fact that unlike Ray who maintains that he did, and still does love Una, Milan becomes immediately cold and withdrawn as soon as he has gotten what he wants from Alice, namely her innocence.
It is very noteworthy that very soon after the event, she confides in her mother, who then tells her father, and even as years later they have failed to protect her, Alice knows she needs to protect herself. She knows this even as he attempts to come back into her life, via the same pretense (books and writing). Alice knows Milan has abused her and wants nothing to do with him, avoiding him throughout the film as best she can, not unlike Ray avoids Una.
The Girl in the Book treats the predator in a more straightforward (although no less troubling) way: Milan is the Harvey Weinstein of the film, a sociopath whose ego has been inflated by a lifetime of people brown-nosing and cowering before him. He is never sorry, and pursues the adult Alice with the apparent glee and lack of self-awareness of those who either do not care about, or don’t realize the extent of the damage they trail in their wake.
In the years since I watched these films, not much has changed, and so much has changed.
On the one hand, cases like Alice and Una’s are not unique, and have been happening forever. But as we enter a (seemingly) more pronounced era of accountability, the focus is being shifted on those who perpetuate with abandon, as well as their relationship with the afflicted.
These two films chose a very specific aspect of sexual assault, namely that of those who play the long game, gaining the trust of vulnerable people and taking their time in abusing it, until the victims are almost convinced that actual affection exists. The devastation left in the aftermath, after he perpetrators leave, takes a toll spanning years, as with other kinds of trauma. But here, the illusion of having participated in the relationship warps the notion of compliance and responsibility.
That is perhaps what hit me so hard about watching these films again, in this particular climate, where many women are made to feel like they “asked for it” by being in a position of erstwhile admiration for the powerful men who used them. Because, after all, what does it say about us that we still find it so easy to blur the lines between abuse and infatuation, when it comes to mentorship and/or admiration? And what does it say about the aforementioned blurred lines that both films place more weight on the relationships between the respective pairs, than they do the consequences and/or recovery?
A recent Buzzfeed News feature on John Kricfalusi, creator Ren & Stimpy, and two underage girls he entertained inappropriate relationships with (Robyn Byrd and Katie Rice) chillingly lays out the ways these liaisons start: a child full of aspirations, and the opportunist who sees an opening.
Comparably, much of the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., R. Kelly and the like ring similarly to the ear: they were legends in their respective fields, and young people approached them for advice and direction, only to find themselves in a distressing situation.
And perhaps this is why giving credence to that particular aspect of the dynamic (namely the initial fascination that sometimes becomes a crush) is so dangerous: because when rape and assault stem from a situation where the victim admired the man in question, we are so quick to downplay the gravity, or else assume that it was warranted. Admiration, after all, equals “asking for it”, according to apologists.
For better or for worse, Una and The Girl in the Book are commendable for opening and furthering uncomfortable conversations about consent, and the manner in which laws, parents and figures of authority fail to protect underaged victims. But the films rubbed me the wrong way nonetheless, especially upon rewatching them: because of the way they choose to frame the stories, and by opting for a tone that is more nuanced than overt.
To be sure: these are not young girls who played with fire and must now spend the next fifteen years of their lives clearing the rubble. These are confused girls who were made to be women before they even understood what that entailed.
Responsibility and accountability from the abusers, two of the most powerful agents for survivors, is precisely what is lacking in both films. When these themes are present, they are off-kilter, partly shifted where they should not be. Una and Alice are shown ruining their own lives or ruining others’, falling apart in pitiful disarray; and while sexual trauma will indeed capsize one’s internal compass, I would have liked to see Ray and Milan’s carefully curated lives similarly go up in flames.
By the end of the film, Alice has confronted her abuser (he, still denying how bad it was), and has chosen to put all her energy from this moment forward, in winning back the boyfriend she cheated on multiple times. Milan is left in the dust, but apart from that, suffers no lasting consequences as far as his career is concerned. As for Una: she crashes a party Ray is giving that evening, meets his clueless wife and ends up, by her unhinged behavior, partly exposing to his friends and family that Ray/Pete is not the man they think he is. But she still walks away, having won no battles, having received no sincere apology, and it is unclear whether the mishap will affect Ray’s life at all — he is, after all, a skilled liar, and presents a brilliantly convincing front to the world.
And then I began to think that perhaps I had read these films wrong. Maybe Una and The Girl in the Book are actually mirroring the way the world works. In real life, abusers get away with a slap on the hand, victims get their wires crossed, thinking that they deserved being taken advantage of, and some adults become convinced that they are in love with minors.
Maybe the very fact that Una is such a mess is supposed to emphasize just how much Ray has ruined her life; maybe we’re supposed to see how disgusting his “nice guy” facade is. Alice repeatedly cheating on her boyfriend and acting in other impulsive ways may make her frustrating, but perhaps, taken in parallel with Una’s twisted attachment for Ray even as an adult, it’s supposed to highlight the different ways that abuse affects notions of intimacy.
For that, I can get behind the films.
What scared me then, and scares me now, with brand new eyes, is that the delicate complexity of the themes could be weaponized: it is easier to hide behind double-entendres and mixed signals than it is straightforward condemnations. These portrayals being realistic does not make them right: I don’t want to see someone struggling with paedophilic urges to see a film like Una and find validation in the “romance” at its center; I don’t want a powerful, egotistical figure of authority to watch a film like The Girl in the Book and say “see, it is not my fault, not when she asked to be taken under my wing”.
So again, I ask: can films dealing with sexual assault afford to be nuanced and open to interpretation, when there are so many people looking for excuses and copouts? Can they afford to create lines upon lines, when there’s the chance that someone may want to read between them?