A young teenage girl is leaving her friend’s house at night. As she gets on her bike to ride the short distance home, a car pulls up next to her, and one of the people inside makes a kissing noise at her when they’re side-by-side at a stoplight.
Trying to move along and mind her own business, the young girl takes off on her bike. But for a few minutes, the car trails after her, and the girl begins to worry about what will happen next.
Writer-director Nina Buxton’s economical but powerful drama takes a small but incendiary moment in one young woman’s daily life and amplifies it with superlative craft and intelligence, illustrating how one seemingly small cat-call can assume ominous proportions.
The confident, sure-handed craftsmanship leans on the power of camera, editing and performance to create its thriller-like intensity. The dialogue is very sparse, but the storytelling breaks down each beat of the young girl’s encounter and flight with deft precision.
With the lack of dialogue and musical score for much of the film’s action, the sound design takes on added import, as do the images, which show just how alone the girl is and her growing fear as the car trails after her on the road. These pared-down elements draw the focus to the girl’s subjective experience, each sound and movement causing her to question her safety and realize her vulnerability.
Young performer Bethany Whitmore gives a powerful, subtle performance that proves pivotal to the film’s evocation of suspense and fear. The acting is really a series of realizations, as the girl moves from a position of youthful, almost innocent freedom to a feeling of being potentially hunted as prey. Each shift in the girl’s consciousness forms the crux of the drama, and the care and precision that the camera and editing take to capture these beats in Whitmore’s performance is key to its resonance. As the girl embarks on her escape, she may elude physical danger for now — but her anxiety and sense of endangerment will likely linger.
The most powerful aspect of “Mwah” is in how it applies the craft and sensibility of the thriller genre to an ordinary, everyday moment, bringing us inside the small but intense fear evoked when our sense of safety is punctured in a seemingly small, supposedly harmless way.
“Micro-aggression” is a very current term in the public discourse, yet the gift of “Mwah” is to make these abstract concepts emotional, concrete and, sadly, highly relatable. Leveraging the power of cinematic storytelling to elongate and expand tiny moments into full journeys of emotion and intimacy, a seemingly small gesture can take on loaded significance, depending on your position in society and life, and a bike ride at night can assume the terror and fear of a chase in a horror film. It’s only for a few minutes for the young girl — but those minutes can seem like hours when it’s possible that your safety, or very life, hangs in the balance.