We Had It Coming (2019)

We Had It Coming opens with two programmatic sequences. In the first, Katja (Sofie Holland) is woken by the sound of a hardcore porn clip landing on her phone – a video in which, by implication, she features. She then, after grimly donning the transparent platform shoes that are part of her work costume, hangs herself. In the second, junior teacher Anna (Natalie Krill, in a standout, accusatory performance) sits in on a session with the school principal (Michael Broderick), an older teacher (Heather Tod Mitchell), and young pupil Aimee (Raynnie Platz). It will emerge that Aimee, having been constantly teased by a male classmate, punched him to the ground, a retaliatory act in which other female classmates were quick to join her. “What the hell’s going on between the boys and the girls in this school!” the principal will exclaim, banging the table with such anger that Aimee will visibly flinch. When he opens the letter of apology that Aimee has been made to write, he – and we with him – will see just the words “GO FUCK YOURSELF!” written on an otherwise blank page.

These scenes form a diptych. The first shows a woman driven to ultimate despair by the sex work in which she has become trapped. The second shows similar patriarchal forces at work, introducing themselves at an institutional level in the earliest years of school (it is the bullied girl, not the bullying boy, who is in trouble), and partly supported by the older female teacher who has assimilated the ambient order – although the sequence also holds out the hope of resistance and female solidarity. Much as the school’s principal is seen only from behind, with the focus on the faces of the two teachers and Aimee, in fact all the film’s male characters come similarly effaced, as a faceless continuum of gender imbalance. For they are reduced to over-the-shoulder shots, hidden in the shadows or placed at (or sometimes beyond) the margins of the screen, even as their presence and often baleful influence always remain felt. We Had It Coming is very definitely a women’s picture, with female characters placed at its centre, and the men in their orbit a thorny problem to be accommodated, evaded or entirely eliminated.

The other connection between these two opening sequences is that Anna is in fact closely related to the late Katja, and is seeking due process for what has happened to her sister. When her lawyer (Vanessa Smythe) has to stop doing pro bono work on the case because her husband wants her to earn more to support his studies, Anna decides to go after Katja’s pimp (Nabil Khatib) herself – if not quite by herself. For travelling with her at least part of the way on the road to revenge is her girlfriend Olivia (Alexia Fast), although there are limits to how far Anna is willing to take her on this ride. Meanwhile the pimp’s unnamed, conflicted partner (Erin Agostino), herself trapped under threat of constant violence to herself and her family, recruits other young women – like Karina (Sarah-Anne Parent) – to work for the pimp while paradoxically doing her best to protect them and plotting her own exit. Yet the deeply unpleasant pimp, and another predatory man in a cowboy hat (Jeremie Earp) who circles looking for random women to rape, merely seem the less acceptable versions of more ‘respectable’ male figures in the film, like the lawyer’s husband who lives off his wife’s earnings, the principal who creates a school environment of fear and oppression or the ‘businessmen’ who hire the clearly strung-out Karina for their own gratification.

Cut off from her ordinary, settled life and from her better feelings in the search for justice, Anna must make a choice. In fact We Had It Coming is full of such cruces for women. One might say it is ‘pro-choice’ – with abortion, and women’s autonomy over their own bodies, very much among the feminist issues that it stages. For Aimee, Anna and the recruiter are all faced with the dilemma of whether to keep getting by as best they can within the system, or to help themselves and their sisters to escape it, and to repay male toxicity in kind. Aimee’s words “Go fuck yourself!” will recur as a rebellious cry against the status quo at the moment when Aimee reaches her turning point and decides that she has simply had enough of being pushed. It is dispiriting that she has to be driven so far, and that she must become as aggressive, as ruthless and as callous as her enemy, but the alternatives – turning the other cheek, knuckling under and acquiescing to whatever comes, or even worse checking out entirely like Katja – do not seem at all better. 

Reminiscent of Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s A Vigilante (2018), We Had It Coming is a story of women kicking back against male violence and abuse. One obvious difference is that its writer/director Paul Barbeau – with whose previous, coming-of-age title We Have Forever (2018) this latest title forms a bleak sort of rhyme – is a man. In fact, his male status serves to ironise the title. For while “She had it coming” is an all too conventionalised line of self-justification uttered by male abusers of women, here the ‘we’ might be be read as Barbeau’s collective reference to men like himself, finally confronted with a retribution long in its arrival. After all, the female characters here do not simply take what is coming their way, but when shoved, eventually hit back. 

Barbeau and DP Benoit Jones-Vallée like to shoot wide, keeping everything at a distance and typically relegating violence to the spaces off screen. It is a way of capturing Anna’s alienation, not just as a stranger in a strange land (who regularly calls her mother in Poland), but as a woman struggling to find her place – and her sense of dignity – in a world that men treat as a domain and hunting ground all their own. Meanwhile in making We Had It Coming, Barbeau ultimately presents himself as being a figure not unlike Olivia – a sympathetic ally ultimately excluded from Anna’s journey – and invites us all, regardless of our gender, to determine where we stand in Anna’s, and other women’s, unjust predicaments and ethical dilemmas. While not quite a rape-revenge film, this has rape, and has revenge, and highlights the strange symmetries between the two in a society otherwise still marked by stark sexual inequality.

strap: In Paul Barbeau’s sort-of rape-revenge film, the faceless forces of patriarchy meet female resistance and solidarity

© Anton Bitel