Sofia is showering and washing her face one morning when a therapist calls. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend and overwhelmed with emotion, she needs some support.
The therapist, however, isn’t exactly helpful, going on and on about gender differences and saying that Sofia is expecting too much of her relationship. She recommends Sofia read a book called “Mars and Venus On a Date.”
After the call, the recommendation inspires some daydreaming within Sofia, who reconnects with her ex in her imagination…as the archetypal Mars and Venus. The dream goes to unexpected places — ones that ultimately free Sofia and help her move forward.
Writer-director and animator Emily Ann Hoffman’s animated romance is a combination of stop-motion and hand-drawn animation, but its tone, preoccupations and voice are closer to the frank, salty work of modern humorists like Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Sharon Horgan, who grapple with difficult emotions and the realities of female bodies with a wry, sharply honest intelligence and humor.
As an animation, the visuals shift between stop-motion during the sequences of realism, while the hand-drawn segments concern the more subjective aspects of Sofia: her imaginings, thoughts and feelings. The “real” stop-motion aspects have a slowness to them — not exactly lumbering, but a weight and imperfection in the movement that emphasizes how the imperfection of reality. But the hand-drawn parts have a fluidity and imaginativeness unbounded by physical laws, and the images can follow the ebbs and flows of Sofia’s mind, often to whimsical, evocative effect.
The writing, too, explores this tension between the imaginative and the real. Here, the tension exists between the reality of Sofia’s relationship with her ex, which was plagued by loneliness and feeling misunderstood, and her longings for more affection and presence. Her therapist tells Sofia that these ineffable longings are indeed a fantasy and a dream, particularly one that plague women, and counsels her to accept that this is what men are like.
Feeling surprised and invalidated by the therapist’s retrograde point of view, Sofia begins to doubt herself — is she really expecting too much to hope for mutual affection and attention? Should she just settle for scraps of love, which is the best she can hope for?
It’s a difficult, relatable question, and “Blackheads” uses the unique narrative opportunities of animation to explore a particularly subjective, imaginative answer — one that lies within the self than in the other person. The question posed by the therapist to Sofia is actually a false one. Instead: what does it take to believe that one is worthy of affection, attention and even love? A radical self-acceptance and self-love, perhaps, and a willingness to eschew anything that makes you doubt your own worthiness.