clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Allison Williams Knows What You Think of Her

From ‘Girls’ to ‘Get Out’ to most recently Netflix’s ‘The Perfection,’ the actress has a knack for choosing roles that are in active conversation with her persona as a celebrity

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Allison Williams would star in a movie called The Perfection. Her character in the Netflix film, Charlotte, is a cellist and former child prodigy who left music to care for her ailing mother. Now an adult and newly grieving, Charlotte is brittle and intense, yet still unfailingly composed. Young, beautiful, and fresh-faced, she’s the kind of person media has traditionally presented to us as a protagonist, but recent cultural shifts have taught us to regard with suspicion. She is, in other words, a typical Allison Williams role—an impressively well-formed archetype for an actress still early in her career.

The Perfection, available to stream this Friday, shares a connection with each of Williams’s best-known projects. The film was directed and cowritten by Richard Shepard, who helmed a dozen episodes of Girls over the series’ six-season run, including Williams showcase “Panic in Central Park.” (Girls was cocreated by Shepard’s partner, Jenni Konner.) Like Williams’s alliterative Marnie Michaels, Charlotte is a high-strung ingenue working in the arts, having trained at an elite boarding school outside Boston. The Perfection also shares a genre with Get Out, Williams’s wildly fortuitous feature debut. As in Get Out, both movie and performer draw scares from our dueling inclinations to like and mistrust Williams’s characters. The trailer shows Charlotte caring for a sick friend, then whipping out a cleaver and urging her to chop off her own hand.

Where Get Out merged horror with what writer-director Jordan Peele termed “social thriller,” The Perfection veers toward the erotic. In both its title and Charlotte’s complicated connection with Elizabeth (Logan Browning), a younger cellist who inherited Charlotte’s post as their academy’s star pupil, The Perfection invokes Black Swan, another story of two women in a ruthlessly competitive field shot through with jealousy and sexuality. The Perfection runs its higher-brow inspiration through the Netflix matrix, yielding a result that’s more compact, (even) campier, and staffed by collaborators with backgrounds largely in TV. What Someone Great is to the rom-com, The Perfection is to horror, another inexpensive zone Netflix has opted to flood.

Though The Perfection is marketed as something of a two-hander, its driving force remains Charlotte, and therefore Williams. (Once Elizabeth develops a mysterious illness, Browning’s duties skew heavily toward “scream queen.”) The movie’s central mystery surrounds her motivations: Why has Charlotte opted to seek out her former mentors and peers after a decade away from the spotlight? What’s behind the focused, almost hungry way she looks at Elizabeth? Have resentment and isolation pushed Charlotte over the edge? We’re left to read Charlotte’s eerily placid face for clues.

By its bloody conclusion, The Perfection reveals its awareness of—and desire to subvert, albeit clumsily—the various tropes it’s deploying. The “crazy” woman. The predatory lesbian. The ugly American let loose in a foreign country she both fetishizes and fears. (Charlotte and Elizabeth’s meet-uncute takes place in Shanghai.) The Perfection hinges on a series of twists meant to play with and unpack our assumptions. But the most specific, and interesting, of these tropes is the myth of Allison Williams and all that she’s come to represent.

Williams rose to prominence on Girls, a satire of millennial entitlement that many, unfairly, did not interpret as satire. Girls’ figurehead and lightning rod was always Lena Dunham, but Williams became a piece of supporting evidence in detractors’ indictment of the show’s perceived nepotism. Williams, like Dunham and their costar Zosia Mamet, is the daughter of a prominent New Yorker (in her case, NBC news anchor Brian Williams). And so Williams, like Dunham, was assumed to be an extension of her character rather than an artist intentionally crafting one. Never mind that Marnie didn’t have a particularly privileged upbringing, or that Williams wasn’t launching an excruciating music career; both were seen to be entitled and oblivious. An unearthed cameo in “That’s Why I Chose Yale” and a semi-viral diary in Harper’s Bazaar (excerpt: “If it’s a non-workday, I get ready to go to Pilates. I wear Lululemon exercise thongs—I’m obsessed with them—and Spanx exercise pants”) didn’t help matters. By the time Girls matured from breakout to established brand, Marnie and Allison had merged.

Enter Get Out, whose cultural legacy necessarily eclipses any single participant. Still, there’s a mutually beneficial relationship between Peele’s megahit and Williams’s image. Get Out both leveraged potential negative feelings viewers may have held toward a paragon of WASP ideals and helped Williams herself move past them. Williams’s Rose, the hero’s girlfriend who takes him to meet her parents, starts the film as an ally who stands up for her partner at an unjust traffic stop and ends it as a serial killer who seduces black people and lures them to have their bodies taken over by rich white customers. The entire plot pivots on the moment when Rose refuses to hand Chris his keys, finally dropping her pretense of sympathy. Later, she picks at some Froot Loops, milk on the side, while googling NCAA prospects.

Taking on Rose showed a certain gameness on Williams’s part—a willingness to acknowledge and exploit her embodiment of what a Ringer colleague likes to call the “neon white woman.” Rose is a spoof—on whiteness in general, on Williams herself in particular—and playing her earned Williams the sort of goodwill a public figure otherwise gains by playing themselves on Saturday Night Live. But Rose is also a warning, a bogeywoman based on the well-founded dread of the well-meaning white person. In her press appearances, Williams ably navigated the fine line between these two modes. “They’d say, ‘She was hypnotized, right?’” Williams told Seth Meyers of certain (almost always white) fans. “And I’m like, ‘No! She’s just evil!’ ... and they’re still like, ‘But maybe she’s also a victim?” Williams has no sympathy for her most well-known character, but she’s also fully cognizant of the unsavory reasons some would.

In the same interview, Williams admitted she was “used to” people keeping their distance, dating back to her Marnie days. Marnie may be much less overtly malicious than Rose, but she’s also much more recognizable, which has a way of raising people’s hackles. Now, after nearly a decade of inhabiting, then cannily owning, audiences’ instincts to think the worst of her, The Perfection represents a new, equally shrewd evolution of Williams’s persona. Where Get Out treats Rose’s villainy as a twist, if a retroactively unsurprising one, The Perfection starts with Charlotte’s as a given. The open question is where Charlotte’s behavior comes from. When answers arrive, the shock is that Charlotte may deserve more benefit of the doubt than we’re initially willing to give. Perhaps Williams always did, too.

Williams still has only a handful of starring roles to her name. Even in the space of such a compressed CV, however, she’s managed to display the savvy and self-consciousness her avatars so frequently lacked. In another era, Williams would be a natural candidate to become an orthodox leading lady. In 2019, she’s built a career as a foil to less conventional protagonists: the supportive best friend in the anti-rom-com, not the heroine; the girlfriend-turned-tormentor of the horror hero, not the final girl. The Perfection brings Williams full circle. After provoking our vitriol only to harness it for dramatic effect, we grew used to Williams toying with the idea she might be a damsel in distress—so much so that it’s a surprise to see her actually become one.