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“Gonzo Girl” Can’t Escape Subject

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 8th, 2023

l-r: Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone in GONZO GIRL. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Gonzo Girl (Patricia Arquette, 2023) 2 out of 4 stars.

Despite solid mise-en-scène, evocative cinematography, and committed performances from the cast, Gonzo Girl never rises above a tiresome portrait of a man best relegated to a previous era. Based on the eponymous novel by Cheryl Della Pietra—itself a dramatization of the author’s time spent in her youth as “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s assistant—the script, by Jessica Caldwell and Rebecca Thomas (Electrick Children), can’t decide how to approach the subject. In the director’s seat for the first time, actress Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) may bring impressive gusto to the affair, but it’s not enough to make us care much about anyone.

The film opens with a Virginia Woolf quote that ends with “I said to the star, consume me.” This should be the setup for an intricate takedown of the kind of celebrity adulation that all-too-often enables the worst kind of behavior. Unfortunately, though I don’t think it was anyone’s intention here, the very spirit that animates the movie defangs any venom it might spit at the system. In Gonzo Girl, the alcohol, drugs, and libidinous mayhem are often the point of the scenes, sexual harassment and assault a mere sidebar to the good times.

Patricia Arquette at TIFF23, presenting GONZO GIRL. Photo by Christopher Llewellyn Reed.

Camila Morrone (Mickey and the Bear) stars as Alley Russo, Cheryl Della Pietra’s stand-in. Willem Dafoe is Walker Reade, the Thompson-esque character, and Arquette, herself, plays his long-suffering secretary, Claudia. There are plenty of other very game folks in roles large and small. It’s a lively ensemble.

When aspiring writer Alley gets what she assumes is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with one of the great scribes of his generation, she is understandably excited. That emotion quickly turns to apprehension upon arrival at his western ranch, where she is made to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Claudia informs her that she must get Walker to finish his long-overdue new book as soon as possible. The problem is that he is far more interested in drinking, drugging, and trying to sexually perform for his much younger girlfriend than anything else.

l-r: Patricia Arquette, Camila Morrone, Willem Dafoe, and Cheryl Della Pietra at TIFF23 GONZO GIRL Q&A. Photo by Christopher Llewellyn Reed.

Well, let’s not forget putting the new gal through her paces. In a series of uncomfortable sequences—executed with rousing vim and vigor—Walker coerces young Alley into doing all sorts of things she previously never considered doing, including putting on sexy clothes for him. We’re meant to see her as doing her utmost to retain her dignity and find herself through her editing of his texts (and writing in her journal), but the net effect is unsettling, and not in a good way, cinematic bonhomie notwithstanding.

But Arquette does clearly know her way around a camera, and the actors do good work. It’s too bad that it’s in service of an old-school look at regrettable shenanigans. At the end, after all has gone down, Walker Reade gets a kind of redemption via advice he gives to Alley. I don’t think so.

[Gonzo Girl just had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), as part of the Discovery Programme.]


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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