The Remaking of Rose McGowan: A Review of 'Dawn'

Still from ‘Dawn’ courtesy of RSA Films

I saw Rose McGowan for the first time when I was eleven years old. Her role as the plucky Tatum Riley, who meets an untimely demise under a garage door in "Scream," left her image lingering in my mind long after the closing credits: Who was that girl? I suddenly started to see her everywhere. Two films she starred in, "Going All The Way" and "Devil in the Flesh," were playing on Fox's weekend movie lineup. She presented at the MTV Movie Awards, where she was nominated for her role as Best Villain in "Jawbreaker" (ultimately losing to Chucky the Doll).

McGowan was - and still (proudly) is - an outsider. She seemed to know from the start that the Hollywood she was interested in no longer existed, but still maintained an air of rebellious confidence that harkened back to the golden age of cinema. When I discovered that McGowan had spent some of her teenage years in Oregon, where I was growing up, and found herself constantly bullied for being that outsider, I envisioned her rise to fame as the ultimate raised middle finger to her tormenters. The punk spirit of McGowan and the many characters she's taken on has been her ultimate way of connecting to her fans. From the foul-mouthed Amy Blue in "The Doom Generation" to the viciously evil Courtney Shayne in "Jawbreaker" or even the kindhearted, goofy witch, Paige Matthews, on "Charmed," McGowan's fearless nature has always shimmered beneath her various on-screen personas.

We've not seen very much of McGowan over these past seven years. After five years on "Charmed," she took an extended break from acting, with the exception of a quick job or two, to clear her own head of a character she inhabited for such a long time. Her directorial debut, "Dawn," is a stomach-churning and visually sumptuous seventeen-minute cautionary tale. Set in 1961, the subtle thriller follows the titular Dawn (Tara Lynne Barr), whose sheltered upbringing and overbearing mother leave her longing for something or someone to free her. When she strikes up a potential romance with a gas station attendant, her safe and lonely world is turned upside down.

For a film so beautifully structured, taught, and uncomfortably intimate, it's hard to believe it was born out of a huge backfire. Originally, McGowan had intended to adapt Flannery O'Connor's short story, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in which a family's road trip is cut short when they get in a car crash and fall prey to a ruthless killer. Already having cast Piper Laurie as the grandmother and securing the four locations she needed, McGowan got the call that the production company she was working with couldn't obtain the rights.

But McGowan, quick on her feet, devised another idea with screenwriters M. A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, had a script within two days, and got to work.

In an interview with the YouTube series DP/30, McGowan said that her first time directing was like finally finding a pair of pants that fit. Her keen, painterly world of "Dawn" evokes "the loneliness of an Edward Hopper painting, the tension of 'The Night of the Hunter' and the look of the original 'Parent Trap.'" The overall effect was perfectly described by The Hollywood Reporter as "Douglas Sirk-meets-David Lynch."

When "Dawn" premiered at Sundance in 2014, it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Best Original Short. Come Oscar season, McGowan took it upon herself to attempt a nomination, holding a seven-day film festival in Los Angeles, where her short was used as a prelude to a lineup of films "featuring iconic performances by actresses that prove rich, complex, and layered roles can and should be written for and by women." Though she ultimately wasn't nominated, she continued to travel and promote "Dawn."

Now that "Dawn" is available to the rest of the world, McGowan is ready to move on to her next project, a feature-length psychological thriller called "The Pines." The 1970s-set film follows a young woman's experience in and subsequent release from a mental institution, capped off with the aftermath of it all. "It's about finding yourself - but in a really beautiful, harrowing, and compelling way," she told Entertainment Weekly. Finding yourself is something Rose McGowan knows all about.