Paint It Black

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Paint It Black Movie Poster Image
Artsy, nonlinear tale with suicide, drinking, sex.
  • NR
  • 2016
  • 97 minutes

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

People do crazy things when loved ones die.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Josie is an independent artist's model and wannabe actress living hand-to-mouth in Los Angeles. She drinks a lot, smokes cigarettes, and does drugs. She has sex with someone from her drawing class the first time they meet, and he becomes her boyfriend. She dreams of doing violence against her boyfriend's crazy mother.


A suicide. Cleaned blood stains are seen in the room where it took place. At the funeral, Josie tries to put a flower on her boyfriend's casket but is physically attacked and choked by the boyfriend's inexplicably vicious mother. They fall; the mother drags and claws at Josie. A wealthy woman threatens to have someone "taken care of" for $5,000. A woman carries a knife, presumably to stab someone but stabs a piano instead. In a daydream, someone chokes an antagonist. In a dream, a character sees a gun pointed at her. A girl urinates on someone's patio.


Josie poses nude for a drawing class. She looks at drawings of nudes. She masturbates on a sofa, clothed. A woman's breast is seen through a sheer nightgown. A man and woman are seen under covers kissing, presumably nude underneath. A photo shows a woman caressing her shirtless grown son in a suggestive way.


"F--k," "s--t," "a--hole," "puta" (Spanish for "whore"), "dyke," and "piss."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults smoke cigarettes, do drugs, and drink lots of alcohol, mentioning next-day hangovers.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Paint It Black focuses on the aftermath of a young man's suicide and how it affects his struggling actress girlfriend and his mentally unstable concert pianist mother. The movie is based on Janet Fitch's 2006 novel set against the 1980s Los Angeles punk scene. Characters do drugs, smoke cigarettes, and drink a lot. A couple is seen under covers kissing. A woman is seen masturbating, clothed, and a model is seen nude from the back. Language includes "f--k" and "s--t." Cleaned blood stains are seen in the room where the suicide took place. At the funeral, Josie is physically attacked and choked by her boyfriend's mother. The attack knocks them both down as the mother drags and claws at Josie. A wealthy woman threatens to have someone "taken care of" for $5,000. A woman carries a knife, presumably to stab someone but stabs a piano instead. In a daydream, someone chokes an antagonist. 

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What's the story?

PAINT IT BLACK follows Josie (Alia Shawkat), out of chronological order, as she meets and moves in with Michael, a young artist from the drawing class for which she poses nude. For some unexplained reason, he goes to a motel and commits suicide. The death and funeral lead to Josie's encounter with Michael's divorced parents, Cal (Alfred Molina) and Meredith (Janet McTeer). Cal is sympathetic after Meredith hysterically assaults Josie during the memorial service. This hints that Meredith is mentally unstable and that she blames Josie for her son's death. There's some suggestion that Meredith and her son had been unusually close, perhaps lovers, before Josie came on the scene, but this isn't explored. Meredith, drinking a lot, begins a campaign to terrorize Josie, who is also drinking a lot. Brief scenes show Josie acting in a seemingly avant-garde, low-budget movie, setting up a seeming murder attempt scene in which Meredith drives up to but misses hitting Josie with a small sports car. For the most part, Meredith exudes condescension and nastiness, then seems nice, tricking Josie into revealing the address where she and Michael had lived. Meredith then steals the contents of that small apartment. Josie is evicted and, in an unexpected turn, invited, or rather begged, to come live with Meredith. In a series of scenes without natural sound or dialogue, Meredith seems to be lovingly caring for an ailing Josie. Josie rejects overtures from friends who wonder why she has moved in with the antagonistic Meredith. For no explained reason, Josie packs up and leaves and drives to the seedy and isolated motel where Michael's body was found. She has a brief conversation with a wretched employee at the hotel and invites her to run off and start new lives together.   

Is it any good?

This movie is a self-conscious, jumbled attempt at emotional truth by actress and first-time director Amber Tamblyn. The source material of Paint It Black is the 2006 novel of the same name by Janet Fitch (White Oleander), and it would be easy to blame the movie's disorder and pretentiousness on the writer as she co-authored the screenplay. But many directorial choices are made here that give a viewer the sense that "art" was the filmmakers' goal over comprehensibility or relevance. It's hard to care about any of these characters, as their journeys are defined by snippets of odd daydreams and nightmares mixed with reality, deliberately set to run in randomly shuffled chronologies, a strategy that discourages audience engagement.

Alia Shawkat plays Josie as a mesmerizing presence, in her defiantly tartish, second-hand wardrobe, wearing a soulful look and demonstrating an almost distressing ability to focus on and communicate inner pain. We never believe or understand why she's attracted to Michael's mother, nor why she willingly wanders into that spider's web. The script doesn't back her up with the explanatory depth that her performance deserves. The talented Janet McTeer as the overprivileged, manic-depressive mother seems to be stuck in a horror movie, complete with candelabras and a haunted mansion. There isn't much for her to do here but emote wildly, especially in the scenes in which the filmmakers allow her actual voice to be heard. In more human moments, the decision was made to leave out the natural sound, distancing the audience from any possibility of finding that part of her character either believable or sympathetic. The comparison between the coarse and raw Josie and the refined and neurotic pianist mother is starkly drawn by Tamblyn's good-effort style of direction, but not enough to carry an entire movie. The movie never goes anywhere, never creates a drive suggesting characters progress from one emotional state or goal to the next. Josie discovers a hidden room full of baby toys and photos but nothing she finds takes her or us to a next step of illumination or understanding. Over and over, the viewer can't help but ask: To what end was this movie made?

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the movie's structure. How does the shuffled chronology enhance or detract from the experience of watching Paint It Black?

  • The movie draws a picture of a stark difference between the kind of woman Michael's mother is and the kind of woman Josie is. What are some of the differences? What do you think they say about Michael's relationship with his mother and about his choice of a romantic partner?

  • The movie shows how different people react to loss. What other movies explore this theme?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas

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