A sort of anthology film, Karen Moncrieff's The Dead Girl serves up five stories interconnected by one common concern: a murdered woman played by Brittany Murphy. In her orbit are "The Stranger" (always brilliant Toni Collette, as the curious discoverer of the corpse), "The Sister" (Rose Byrne, electrified by the possibility that the Dead Girl is her long-lost sibling), "The Wife" (Mary Beth Hurt, married to a man whose nocturnal wanderings could be connected to the murder), and "The Mother" (Marcia Gay Harden, tracking the footsteps of her dead daughter). In examining these women's disturbed social roles, Moncrieff comes up with a novel feminist drama.
Though the women at the center of each story are all survivors, they're also victims: of browbeating men, of American culture and, perhaps most disturbingly, of each other. Collette's character suffers under her shut-in mother, an overwrought harridan on the level of a horror movie (and indeed, Piper Laurie—Carrie's abusive mother—plays the role). The story improves when it leaves their squalid home: "The Stranger"'s quiet rebellion in the wake of a dead girl—with whom she creepily identifies, perhaps even envies—is to seize on sexual opportunity and kinkily act out (with Giovanni Ribisi's unsettling suitor).
Byrne's "Sister," too, is dead inside, and tormented with elusive chances at happiness. Overflowing with a sadness that Byrne makes horribly palpable, the sister is desperate for closure; until she gets it, she cannot see her way to accept the love overtures of a fellow forensic student (James Franco). Harden's walking-wounded "Mother" faces the challenge of starting from scratch when the dead girl's partner in runaway prostitution (Kerry Washington) reveals a heretofore unknown grandchild. Hurt's long-suffering "Wife" is a familiar character in a familiar situation: discovering the buried secrets of her testy spouse (Nick Searcy). Ultimately, Moncrieff flashes back to the fate of "The Dead Girl."
Certainly, some stories succeed better than others; Moncrieff and her cast indulge melodrama in cinematic short stories that hustle to get their points (in this way, Harden and Washington's story is close but no cigar). But there's an underlying, unifying power and credibility to Moncrieff's cumulative assertion that degradation is expected of too many women, and too often expected by themselves.