For a breakout director whose debut film is a sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile, Nicole Kassell is almost resolutely uncontroversial—nearly girl-next-door-ish. Her favorite film is The Black Stallion. Her quiet manner suggests the type of artsy teen who spent a lot of time in the high-school darkroom (which she did). And although Kassell just gave birth to her first child—weeks before the film’s release—she emphasizes that her feelings on the movie’s subject matter are no different than any other young mother’s. “It’s a horrific crime, and if anyone did it to my own or anyone close to me, I would want to kill them,” she says matter-of-factly.
But if Kassell refuses to mouth off with the brashness of her fellow auteurs (Todd Solondz, say), the film she’s made is bound to be as much of a provocation—not to mention a tough sell in the current cultural environment. In The Woodsman, which Kassell adapted with Steven Fechter from his original play, Kevin Bacon plays Walter, who lives quietly on the gray periphery of Philadelphia, across the street from an elementary school. Having completed a prison sentence for child molestation, he works at a lumberyard, kindles a tentative romance with a co-worker (played by Bacon’s real-life wife, Kyra Sedgwick), and visits his parole officer, all the while trying to stave off his ruinous urges. In one pivotal scene, Walter sits on a park bench next to a girl he has been following—and as her discomfort rises, the viewer’s sympathies shift uncertainly. The film may be Kassell’s first—she was still in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU when she became determined to adapt the project—but she has chosen a hot-button subject: Upcoming features on the theme include Solondz’s Palindromes and Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. It’s odd, she allows, “how in movies it’ll be the year of the Western or the year of the meteor. Not that it’s the year of the pedophile film, but there’s some collective conscience working. It’s not just the artists. It’s the people with the control, finally acknowledging it might be something audiences want to talk about.”