I didn’t go into Only Mine, a Netflix film about a woman and her abusive boyfriend, with high hopes. Not because I’m a huge snob (I am French, but even I have to take a break from turning my nose up at the world every once in a while, lest I develop a neck spasm), but because Netflix doesn’t exactly have a spotless track record when it comes to films tackling narratives of abuse.
Last year, the streaming service became the home of 365 Days, an erotic romantic drama in which a woman is imprisoned by a “dominant Mafia boss” who keeps her captive and gives her one year to fall in love with him (spoiler alert: she does). 365 Days caused an uproar, mainly in the form of an online petition asking Netflix to remove it from its catalogue.
“It’s not love,” influencer Mik Zazon, who started the petition, told Vice of the film at the time. “It’s abuse, multiple forms of abuse. When you put a movie out like that, it is glamorising, it is romanticising – it is teaching young men that women want to do whatever they want.” The petition has been signed by more than 95,000 people in the 10 months since its creation.
While I am wholly uninterested in policing anyone’s tastes in erotica, there is no denying that 365 Days didn’t have much of value to say about the nature of abuse. There is plenty of room for films to smartly explore uncomfortable territory, but 365 Days fell short, mostly due to a lack of internal conflict and character development.
I was prepared for Only Mine to misfire in a similar way. I was prepared, let’s say it, for a disaster. But what I got instead was a surprise, in the form of a lean, humble, clear-headed film, with some clever things to say about the ways abusive relationships unfold.
Based in the small town of Coldwater Hills, Only Mine tells the story of Julie Dillon (Amber Midthunder), a well-liked, college-bound student who works as a waitress at the local diner. Julie begins dating David Barragan (Brett Zimmerman), a newly hired cop at the local station. He’s young, dashing, and, as it turns out, a huge creep.
David’s abuse of Julie builds up relatively slowly (the film has a total running time of an hour and 27 minutes, so it does move at a brisk pace). He’s possessive of her, and needlessly suspicious of her male co-worker. The first notable incident takes place when David tries to call Julie, only for her not to pick up her phone. “I always want to be able to find you,” he tells her. David doesn’t get to answer that question, but it’s in the film’s title: the young officer, clearly, wants Julie to be his, and only his. It’s not the most sophisticated definition of coercion and control ever to be uttered, but it works.
The film also succeeds in casting an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere on Julie’s plight: David’s father was also a cop in the local force, and was a friend of David’s chief. David’s status as a police officer, obviously, makes it harder for her to report the abuse, and nearly impossible for her to call for help. Small-town dynamics mean she ends up further isolated: David is good at charming the locals, and they more readily trust him than her.
Only Mine is very loosely inspired by the true story of Laura Kucera, a 19-year-old woman who was left for dead after being shot by an ex-boyfriend in 1994. Brian Anderson pleaded guilty in the case and was sentenced to 55 years in prison, the Chicago Tribune reported in 1995. Kucera died that same year in a car crash aged 20.
This context matters, because the parts of Only Mine that could seem overwrought are the ones that borrow from reality. If the parts of the script that most strain credulity also happen to be the ones that stem from true events, then as a viewer I find myself more willing to go along with them than if they were pure fiction.
Only Mine isn’t great cinema. Nor does it try to be. But it’s far from a silly film, and it never romanticises David’s abuse of Julie. Tone-wise, it’s like a long episode of Criminal Minds or NCIS. The film works because it’s aware of its own calibre. It keeps to the story at hand, cleanly so, and makes a couple of worthy points along the way: that abuse can sneak up on you, that it’s not always physical, and that it can begin with a variety of controlling behaviours.
There were many opportunities for Only Mine to go wrong. But by keeping its messaging straightforward – and thanks in no small part to a compelling performance by Walter Fauntleroy as an out-of-town detective – it manages to stick the landing.