I've gotten to know Janis DeLucia Allen a little bit over the last year or so, but it still came as a surprise when she told me she was a filmmaker. She didn't say much about it, in a humble kind of way, but I did go home after she told me and looked up her production company, Coffee and Language. Janis runs the company with her husband JP Allen and they've had some real success with their independent films made in the Bay Area. I rented their most recent, Stephanie's Image, from Netflix and below is the review of it I recently posted on Blogcritics. What I didn't say on that site is that the ending of the film really freaked me out because I felt like I was watching Melissa Leo portraying Madame Merle. An uncomfortable but fascinating bit of art imitating life to be sure.

Stephanie’s Image (2009) features Academy Award nominee (Best Actress for Frozen River) Melissa Leo  as a woman looking for the perfect image of herself as a way to mitigate the toll time and life are taking on her appearance and body. It’s a 21st Century update of the Narcissus myth, spun through the lens of modern technology, in this case an obsession with cameras. Produced by Bay Area independent filmmakers JP Allen (screenplay) and Janis DeLucia Allen (producer and director), who both appear in prominent roles, this is a taut meditation on identity disguised as a murder mystery.

Stephanie’s been murdered. By all appearances it looks like her boyfriend Richard (Chris Butler) killed her in some kind of jealous rage, though no one appears to understand why. DeLucia Allen plays a photographer who interviews people who knew the couple in attempt to understand what happened. She has her own motives for being involved in the project. Ostensibly these interviews will become a documentary about Stephanie. The participants think it’s going to be a “tribute” video, but DeLucia, who’s character is unnamed, delves deep, making everyone she talks with angry and uncomfortable once she relentlessly starts peeling back the layers of their superficial stories. It seems everyone has a story about Stephanie they’d rather not discuss.

These puzzle pieces are neatly laid out, keeping the viewer engaged without feeling like they're being led to a foregone conclusion, which they’re not. The film’s resolution makes perfect sense without being obvious about its intentions. When it’s over, if you’re like me, this film is going to remind you of someone you know or knew, and it’s highly likely that person won’t be in your life anymore.

The Allens have a strong cast on hand including Mara Luthane, Richard Conti, Darren Bridgett and Douglas Rowe. Leo is seen mostly through photographs and video clips until she makes a fearless, devastating appearance in a monologue toward the end of the film. Shot in and around San Francisco, this small, fiercely independent movie deserves an audience. Buy it on Amazon or rent it on Netflix, and let’s put it on the radar.

This review originally appeared in a slightly different form on Blogcritics