There are a lot of dead bodies in movies, and they are found in many places: murder mysteries, war stories, the criminal underworld, et cetera. One place that they are not typically found is in the center of omnibus films exploring the self-identity of the American woman, and for that alone it's worth praising The Dead Girl.

Perhaps it's just my poor memory, but I can't think of another American film with a structure quite like this: five short stories, neatly segregated from each other by what I can only think of as chapter titles, all connected only by the central figure of a dead young woman found naked and mutilated in a field somewhere in Los Angeles county. In "The Stranger," Toni Collette plays an expressionless, fragile woman with an abusive mother who finds the girl's body and becomes a twisted sort of celebrity; "The Sister" features Rose Byrne as a grad student/mortician's assistant who wonders if the dead girl is her long-lost sister; "The Wife" tells of a bored woman played by Mary Beth Hurt who uses the dead girl's case to bring intrigue into her life; "The Mother" stars Marcia Gay Harden as the girl's estranged mother, come to identify the body; and lastly, "The Dead Girl" shows us the final day of a human life, embodied by Brittany Murphy. Torrid potboilers, one and all. Yet together, they form a complex character study of suffocated womanhood.

The Stranger, the Sister, the Wife, the Mother...what are these, if not archetypes? (It's no accident that the titles are "the" not "a"). They represent the roles that women are permitted and expected to play, and in every single case, the woman playing that role chafes inside of it, in some fashion. Significantly, none of the stories is about the Daughter, although three of the five women could be easily described that way. I think it's because that is the role that represents the past: not every woman will become the Wife, or the Mother, but every woman is born to two parents, and that means that every woman was once a Daughter. The Dead Girl is not about the past, although the past is hanging over every frame; it is about the present moving into the future. None of these women are The Daughter, because none of them have a commitment to history; all of them are trying to escape history.

The extremely gifted writer-director Karen Moncrieff (I have not seen her first film, Blue Car, more's the pity) conducts this exploration with a perfectly neutral eye, depicting without editorializing and directing even the most lurid imagery without a trace of sensationalism. Within the first few moments of the film, Toni Collette's Arden has stumbled across the gruesomely disfigured corpse, and Moncrieff and her cinematographer Michael Grady film the bloody body in extreme detail; but it's not ogling, nor is it gore porn like CSI, to which The Dead Girl is in many ways the exact antithesis. It's almost documentary-like in its effect: things happen in front of a recording device, without any bias as to what they mean.

It is perhaps a paradox that this steadfast, Godlike point-of-view results in such an intimate cross-section of life, but perhaps not. By refusing to exploit the minutiae of her subjects, Moncrieff argues for their reality and their sobriety. "Sobriety" is a good word to hang on to in this film. It is very clear-eyed and honest about what it depicts, stressing that nothing here is exceptional, and that is why it is so important. The Dead Girl is very much like the "day in the life" narratives of Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway, in which we see a significant moment in a human life; but it is clear that we are not seeing the only moment. We briefly stop in on these women's lives, observe noncritically, and move forward.

If anything, it's too brief, and this is by far my chief complaint with The Dead Girl: there's not enough of it. There is an average of 18 minutes spent in each chapter, and while that shows us a tantalizing hint of the women involved, the very way in which the film stresses the fullness of their existence is a frustration, as we barely begin to understand the shape of that fullness before we're whisked away to the next story. It's not that I'm complaining that there's no resolution: the very point is that nothing is ever complete resolved, not even in death. I just regret that we get to spend so little time in the company of these terribly interesting women, wishing that I could watch the details of their lives just a tiny bit longer.

Blame Moncrieff for dotting the screenplay and mise en scène with such rich detail; blame the extraordinarily gifted cast (also including Piper Laurie, Kerry Washington, Mary Steenburgen, and several other less-famous players) for breathing such specific life into their parts. I had just a taste, and I wanted a full meal. There are so few movies that depict lives which so clearly extend beyond the edges of the frame, that one can't be blamed for wanting to see as much of them as possible.

That still leaves a pretty fine motion picture. A joyless one, make no mistake - how could a story of womanhood being denied expression be anything else? - but fine and beautiful and true and sad. It's no surprise that a film this small should be so easily overlooked (dropped into L.A. for a last-minute Oscar bid, before being shuttled across the country at a whirlwind pace on its way to a perfunctory DVD release), but there can be sublimity in small things. That's really the theme of The Dead Girl in a nutshell: the tiny moments in tiny lives can be sublime, and there is nothing in the human experience unworthy of consideration and observation.