The Dead Girl

The title character of “The Dead Girl” is introduced to us as a corpse, rotting in the sun in the hills near Los Angeles, and discovered by a woman who’s not feeling so great herself.

The dead girl’s identity is a mystery at first, eventually revealed to us, but the film is not a whodunit. It is, rather, an anthology of stories about various women’s connections to the body, both now and before the girl’s death. Characters from one segment do not overlap with those from another (with one crucial exception); the stories relate thematically instead, with mothers and daughters enduring fractured relationships, and with every female protagonist in desperate need of escaping a bad situation.

The body’s discoverer is Arden, who, played by Toni Collette, exemplifies the type of role Collette is expert at: mousey, self-conscious, and unsure. Arden is a full-time caretaker for her ailing mother (Piper Laurie), an emotionally abusive and mean-spirited old hag who has essentially made her daughter a prisoner in her own house. Arden finds the possibility of escape with a grocery bag-boy named Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), and they embark on a rather twisted relationship.

Next is Leah (Rose Byrne), a medical student who examines the body of the dead girl and believes the victim is her sister, who disappeared 15 years earlier and hasn’t been seen since. Her parents (Mary Steenburgen and Bruce Davison) are unconvinced, but that’s irrelevant. The crucial thing is that Leah has spent 15 years in limbo with regard to her sister, and she wants to move on.

We then meet Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), a cranky, elderly woman who runs a self-storage facility with her husband, Carl (Nick Searcy). Ruth is on her way to becoming as shrewish as Arden’s mother. She apparently hates her husband and is dissatisfied with her life, and is thrown a curveball when she discovers a secret Carl has been keeping.

Perhaps most effective, emotionally speaking, is the segment in which the dead girl’s mother, Melora (Marcia Gay Harden), seeks to find answers about her daughter’s life prior to her murder. She tracks down the seedy motel where she was living and talks to her best friend, a jaded prostitute named Rosetta (Kerry Washington). These two actresses, of different generations and with seemingly little in common, connect in a very real way. We’re used to it from Harden (who won an Oscar for “Pollock”); Washington, meanwhile, has been largely overlooked despite being a powerful actress and appearing in high-profile films such as “Ray” and “The Last King of Scotland.” Someone give her a lead in a strong drama and watch what she does with it.

The entire ensemble is strong, actually; we should also mention Brittany Murphy, doing fine work as a down-on-her-luck single mom in one of the segments. Writer/director Karen Moncrieff, whose “Blue Car” was a Sundance success in 2002, deserves praise first for even assembling such a great, diverse collection of actresses, and second for conducting them so well through a film that has an unconventional structure and no stand-out “lead” character.

As is often the case with anthology films in which the stories are connected thematically, some chapters are more useful than others. None of them would stand alone very well, and most of the stories’ resolutions are hinted at more than shown. Yet I’m not sure you could omit any of them, either, as each stroke provides a color that contributes to the overall picture.

B (1 hr., 25 min.; R, some nudity, brief strong sexuality, a lot of harsh profanity, some gruesome images of a dead body.)