Written and directed by Leyla Coll-O’Reilly (also known as Leyla Josephine), Groom follows 15-year-old Hannah as she undertakes a trial shift in a beauty salon. With their false lashes and acrylic nails, the dolled-up staff practise a heightened femininity that overwhelms Hannah, pockmarked and unmanicured by comparison. Beautician Denise, who mesmerises Hannah, asks her if she has a boyfriend yet; this casual affirmation of heterosexuality highlights how salons can be uncomfortable spaces for queer women. Hannah’s latent queerness is taken advantage of by salon owner Skye, whose inappropriate behaviour makes the title’s dual meaning apparent.
Groom is shot in a squarer aspect ratio than is standard, closer to an Instagram grid than a letterbox. This is fitting considering salons like the one in Groom use Instagram for marketing purposes and that they’re often styled with an exaggerated, optimised-for-Instagram girliness. Production designer Iveta Smidtaite cleverly mimics this aesthetic, but shots of a dead fish in a tank and hair clogging a plughole suggest the cutesy decor masks something more unsavoury.
From the subway tiles to the velvet upholstery, the salon is aggressively pink. Pastel shades and rose gold abound, with fuchsia used during more intense scenes. The greens and blues of Hannah’s clothes, eyes and earrings jar against this uniform colour scheme. In the waxing room, the salon’s inner sanctum, Hannah looks on as Skye gives a customer a bikini wax. Skye instructs Hannah to watch closely, later remarking, ‘you certainly looked like you liked it.’ Skye’s salacious comments indicate her disregard for employer-employee and adult-child boundaries.
Skye often repeats what other characters have already said – that the staff are a family, that school-leaver Hannah has a chance to turn things around. These repetitions function like the mirrors that feature in so many of Groom’s shots, with Skye’s delivery an uncanny distortion of the original’s. Groom begins and ends in Hannah’s mum’s car, where Hannah stares at us through the wing mirror as she announces she’ll be going back tomorrow.
There’s a satisfying rhythm to these verbal and visual motifs. This is unsurprising given both Coll-O’Reilly’s success as a poet and that she was mentored during the filmmaking process by Lynne Ramsay, whose work is rich in metaphor. Ramsay’s films are also known for vivid sensory details, something Groom achieves through Richy Carey’s tactile sound design. Hairspray cans hiss, waxing strips crinkle, gum smacks – Groom could moonlight as an ASMR video.
In this moment of escalating transphobia, it’s valuable that Groom acknowledges cis women’s capacity to abuse. Groom makes other interesting observations about gender, with Skye’s saccharine femininity shown to be every bit as toxic as its masculine counterpart. Tackling these complex issues with confidence and style, Groom adds an exciting new string to Coll-O’Reilly’s bow.