But Becky lives. She gets sober. She embraces motherhood and plays a reunion show with her friends and former nemeses. Perversely, this happy ending is what allows Her Smell to be a supremely challenging viewing experience. Perry has nearly inverted the Jackson Maine plotline in A Star Is Born into something that’s uglier but more hopeful, and maybe even more helpful. Becky’s worst moments are revolting, unromantic, and seemingly unforgivable. But she’s redeemed.
Most of the movie unfolds with nausea-inducing camerawork in the crusty bowels of venues and a hall-of-mirrors-like recording studio. Becky flutters around rooms, leaving behind corkscrew trails of confrontations in the form of compliments and petting or insults and violence. You can tell she has been a master manipulator, but no one around her appears susceptible to her charms by the time the film begins. They’re just trying to hang on. Becky’s band, Something She, has begun to lose its ability to draw a crowd because Becky has canceled so many concerts. One bandmate, Ali (Gayle Rankin), reports that the singer fired her twice on this tour and woke up with no memory of doing so.
The movie’s two hours are essentially made up of five jumbo scenes: three of Becky in a frenzy, two of her in recovery. The long-take format relies a lot on Moss, and she delivers with a 52-card-pickup blast of a performance. Becky gasps, screams, and bites, but the most chilling moments aren’t in her meltdowns. They’re in her faux-intimate, super-sarcastic whispers. They’re in the way she jerks from one persona to another, Linda Blair–like. Whatever forces are controlling her—meth or mania or both (drug use is mostly left off-camera)—can amp her into a near-Shakespearean register. “Silly me, I lost a drummer on the way to grandmother’s house,” she says seductively to a band of younger women who showed up to the studio that Becky had refused to vacate. “I thought we’d have to scrap paper and go home. And what should happen instead? Three witches come to my rescue!”
The other characters do not speak with such verve; rather, they’re mostly commiserating about Becky’s awfulness. Or else they’re trying and failing to shame her into acting right. This dynamic makes for one of the movie’s many aesthetic and moral asymmetries. Most of the characters are like people trying to nag a hurricane down to a tropical storm, and it’s as frustrating to watch as that sounds. But Perry deserves credit for caring about the folks in Becky’s orbit; her entropy is almost less the point than its damage. The lawsuits that pile up against her reflect genuine grievances, whether from the manager who’s nearly bankrupted by her antics or from the ex who’s been left to raise their daughter alone.
When rock bottom comes, it’s gnarly, and it’s performative: She’s filmed by a documentary crew, and her final fugue ends with her onstage. She’s being encouraged to act this way, or at least she’s using the audience to justify her behavior. Recovery comes far from the rock environs, in a calm and orderly country home, and Becky tells visitors that her monstrousness was intrinsic to her ability to perform. But what really pulls her into lucidity is the simple, humane epiphany that other people matter. Her daughter reenters the picture. At the comeback concert, she tells the crowd, “It took me a lifetime to realize that without people like these women up here beside me, nobody is nothing.”