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A “Midwestern Gothic” Thriller Hits Theaters

Director and UIC professor Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin captures the big moods of young adulthood.

Reeder at Taft High School, one of the movie’s filming locations.   Photo: Alex Garcia

Your film Knives and Skin, which opens December 13 and is already generating buzz after premiering at the Berlin Film Festival, centers on teens. Why that focus?

Making films about young people is just so fun. There’s so much you can do with music and fashion. They’re figuring out their skin, their identity, and transitioning every minute. In a way, all of those firsts you experience help determine who you become as an adult.

Your story of a missing girl and the repercussions on a small town blurs the edges between adolescence and adulthood. Parents behave like kids, while teenagers act like grownups.

Young people get shortchanged in terms of how much agency they have over their lives. On the other hand, we don’t allow people to have second or third comings of age with grace or forgiveness. I wanted to write teenage characters who were self-determined and adults, especially mothers, who were complicated and even unlikable.

You shot Knives and Skin in Chicago and Lemont but set the film in Ohio. What about the Midwest inspires you?

Driving through the Midwest, you encounter these beautiful expanses of flatness where land meets unending sky. It’s majestic and super cinematic. I grew up in Ohio, where people are real and sincere. At the same time, I’m also really drawn to Midwestern stories with a sense of darkness. I like to call it Midwestern gothic.

You cast the entire film out of Chicago, including four members of the Steppenwolf ensemble. Why exclusively tap local talent?

Initially I hired a casting director in Los Angeles, but she told me I needed to cast the movie out of Chicago’s theater scene. The roles I wrote are super nuanced. They are the kind that actors really have to live in for a while. They demand performers who are fully dedicated to the craft, and Chicago’s pool for that kind of talent is really unparalleled.

You moved to Chicago in the mid-’90s. Why did you stay put when many of your filmmaking peers decamped for the coasts?

When I came here, Chicago had this provenance of radical media making that, as a third-wave feminist riot grrrl, was super appealing to me. When people left, I hunkered down and continued making work. This city is dedicated to a lawless kind of creativity, and it’s here that I got to make this weird little film completely on my own terms and directly from my gut.

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