Zoe is out at a club one night, dressed for the evening in a glamorous dress. But feeling insecure, she retreats from the dance floor and bar to the bathroom to redo her makeup.
As she attends to her lipstick, her inner critic comes out. Her inner critic isn't just doubtful, but a savage, harsh and punitive presence -- one that threatens to derail not just Zoe's night, but her mind.
Directed by Stephen Gallacher from a script written by Hayley Reeve, who also stars as the titular character, this short drama is essentially a descent into one woman's mind as she confronts the miasma of harsh self-judgment and self-hatred at her inner core. There's Zoe, who is an archetypal young woman living in a city and out for the night. But then there are also the voices inside her head, which become embodied as a spiteful, hate-filled presence, unleashing a toxic stream of self-incrimination at her failure to be perfect in every way.
The film opens with the scintillating dazzle of a club, with alluring music, flashing lights, gleaming decor and dark, saturated colors. But these visual elements skew into a claustrophobic nightmare, as the register of the storytelling turns psychodramatic, in which extreme inner psychological states surface in the character's material world. When Zoe goes to the bathroom and is confronted by her appearance -- and the societal messages around her -- she triggers the appearance of the other meaner, more malevolent Zoe.
The inner Zoe's attacks get more and more pointed and personal, and in both versions of Zoe, Reeve portrays the push and pull of the inner dialogue, as well as the way it pecks away at her sense of self. The attack is relentless. But it's only interrupted when two other women enter. In the brief community and solidarity that Zoe finds with them, she finds a small but crucial palliative for her inner torment.
"This Is Zoe" has a focused, narrow narrative scope, but its power comes from how it portrays inner self-hatred as the demon it is for many women in particular. Too self-loathing and harsh judgment is minimized, pushed aside in denial, cast as self-deprecation or kept quiet in shame. The modern ideal of "empowerment" sometimes also forces us to pretend we're more confident than we are, as if we're always sufficiently armored against a constant barrage of cultural messages we need to live up to. But the forceful writing and heightened visuals of the film embody self-hatred as what it is: horrible, cruel and demonic in its power to make us hate ourselves. But when Zoe finds support in the women around her, she finds the strength to put out her message -- one that will hopefully help others in their battles with inner demons.