Melanie Martinez’s pastel-colored horror movie musical K-12 premiered in New York last Thursday at the AMC at Times Square. It strings together the thirteen songs on her album of the same name, released last Friday, telling the story of her imagined persona Cry Baby as she attends school for the first time.
The 25 year old songwriter is back in the swing of things with her second full length album and first feature film. Fans of Martinez’s highly stylized storytelling – colorful creepy jaunts into the troubled home of Cry Baby – will not be disappointed. The film opens with Cry Baby’s alarm clock going off for the first day of school, or as she calls it, the “first day of hell.” She throws the alarm clock off her nightstand using telepathy. Turns out Cry Baby isn’t of this world, and neither are many of the other kids at school.
The film takes us through all the typical trials and tribulations of grade school – rowdy bus rides, the popular girl who makes it her mission to torment you, power-tripping teachers, poor administration. But this is Cry Baby’s world. She and the other extraterrestrial kids – marked by their eyes turning completely black when they summon their telepathic abilities – seem to be on a mission to understand the pain of human life. Every scene is dramatized to dystopian extremes to teach life lessons that apply beyond graduation. The bus driver is an alcoholic pervert who does nothing to control his passengers, students are forced to take medication to keep them docile, and the principal nearly overdoses in his office.
These scenarios provide Martinez with a platform to comment on a wide range of issues. At drama club, Cry Baby asks to change her assigned role, calling it “domestic,” and wondering aloud if she could play a film director (a fun reference to Martinez’s heavy involvement in the direction of the film) or President of the Untied States instead. The class jeers in response and one boy turns to her asserting women are too “soft” to handle “a man’s job.” Without missing a beat Cry Baby respondents that having a greater capacity for emotion is one of many qualities that makes “her kind” superior. In another scene, a blue-haired teacher in transition sits before the principal expressing her need to be her authentic self as a woman. The principal mocks and fires her. Other scenes touch on body image and eating disorders or sexual assault. As the characters bemoan their exhaustion with this life, they receive supportive messages from their extraterrestrial leader encouraging the all-importance of acceptance.
Martinez has chosen to turn towards the external issues Cry Baby sees in the world rather than the internal ones she faces at home. It’s a bold choice to dive headfirst into such thorny social commentary. Some of the character monologues come across as simplistic or overly righteous, and not every issue gets the care and attention it deserves as we follow Cry Baby through school.
The young artist’s decision to take on such a challenge reflects her drive overall. Martinez was deeply involved with every aspect of the film, from writing to directing to costuming to editing. In a behind the scenes clip after the premiere we see a video of Martinez rehearsing her choreography for one of the film’s many dance sequences. Martinez narrates the video journal-style. She explains her hectic schedule, sometimes learning two full numbers in one day, and the work she poured into rehearsing, often coming home with bruises all over her body. Even the character of Cry Baby represents how Martinez is determined to challenge herself creatively in everything she does.
“I feel like it’s kind of easy to just write a pop song about how I feel or about my love life or whatever but it’s so much more of a challenge to create a story and think about other characters and how they relate to that character and expanding that world,” she says. “That’s why making a film was so important for me because it pushed me to grow as an artist in so many different ways, as a dancer, as a writer, as a director, as a costume director, all these different things that are so new for me and I’m just grateful to have been able to do it and finish it.”
The end result is well-produced, full of Martinez’s characteristic aesthetic, and surprisingly witty at times. In a film that reflects so many unpleasant real world experiences, some viewers may find catharsis in Cry Baby’s journey. Despite their challenges, she and her friends always end up with a satisfying win. Cry Baby and her friend flip off the bus driver in style, the school bully loses control of her posse, and the principal meets a comedic gory end.
K-12 represents Martinez going a little deeper than before, using Cry Baby’s vulnerability to investigate the pains of life, and acknowledge a wider world beyond herself. Her commentary doesn’t always hit the mark but after the huge creative jump from her first album to K-12, we’re excited to see where Cry Baby goes next.
Martinez will be touring the album in North America and Europe kicking off October 12 in Washington DC!
Check out the trailer for K-12!