The Trouble with Charli


The streaming service Tubi is a source for past hits, off-brand thrillers and romcoms, and a slew of "originals." It's also a platform for independent films that are designed to go straight to VOD. Finding them can take work, however; if you're looking for Borderline, a new film directed by Rich Mallery, you'll have to decide which it is from four films with exactly the same title, and more if you count variations like The Borderline or On the Borderline.

This one called Borderline is about a young woman's descent into drugs and depravity. It's an ambitious project with an enthusiastic cast, particularly Kate Ly Johnston, a talented newcomer who pretty much commandeers the movie. She plays Charli, a nurse with borderline personality disorder compounded by an opiate addiction. She's onscreen almost constantly, begging, screaming, demanding, seducing, and betraying to get what she wants. Charli's capable of anything, and Ms. Johnston plays it all with great aplomb.

Borderline will be familiar territory for watchers of HBO's Euphoria or fans of the seething teen dramas of Greg Araki or Larry Clark. But it's more limited and tamer, taking fewer risks. Think a community theater production of Requiem for a Dream.

Rich Mallery has several films to his credit as director, including Wicked Game (2022) and Felines (2023). His writer credits go back even farther to Body Electric in 2015. His resume is varied, touting screenplays for everything from Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015) and Darling Nikki in 2019.

What Borderline lacks in budget, it makes up in fervor. Kylee Michael is game as Zee, Charli's roomie and muse who may exist or exist only in her, Charli's, mind. Their scenes together have a disarming naturalism. Irmon Hill is Charli's hapless boyfriend Kyle, who seems not to notice that Charli is AWOL for long stretches of time. And Quentin Boyer’s turn as Charli's employer and pill provider—with a foot fetish—is startling and creepy. The sound design by Alexander Givens-Baran and Maui Holcomb provides a pulsing bed for the many changing moods of the action.

The actors are all in, but Borderline cries out for art direction. Mr. Mallery shoots action midlevel against expanses of bare walls with bright psychedelic paintings at either end. Mr. Mallery frames his characters by stepping back a bit too far, showing more of the surroundings than necessary, which just emphasizes the lack of decoration.

Another problem: everything is so clean. Junkies live in chaos, yet every setting is immaculate, as are the principals; the only indication that Charli is frazzled from drugs is dark splotches under her eyes.

Still, Borderline has some intriguing ideas. It’s not a rehab movie. There's no redemption here, just waiting for the inevitable. Reality and fantasy get confused: after a particularly manic episode in which Charli sustained some bruises, she wakes up unblemished in her bed as if from a dream. At one point Charli asks Zee "Is this even real?" to which Zee replies "Does it matter?" That sums up what’s appealing about this small, affecting film.


Borderline. Written and directed by Rich Mallery. 2023. 100 minutes. On Tubi until mid-October, then on cable and Digital VOD, including Prime Video.

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