When Josie (Alia Shawkat), bleary eyed after another night in L.A.’s punk clubs, wakes up to a phone call early in Paint it Black, she doesn’t expect good news. But nothing can prepare her for the awfulness of the news she receives. Asked by the San Bernardino police if she knows of anyone who might have checked into a hotel room under the name “Oscar Wilde” she hesitates. When the the officer starts naming off identifying marks — a tattoo, some birthmarks — her mind flashes to the past, and the intimate moments she shared with Michael (Rhys Wakefield), a man who loved Oscar Wilde and who had that tattoo and those birthmarks and who’s just killed himself in a San Bernardino hotel.
Josie has a hard time coming back from that, and from there Paint it Black follows close behind her as she descends into a world all her own — or almost all her own. Her friends try to comfort her, but she can’t process their banal thoughts on coming to terms with death. She returns to the clubs, but the film drowns out the soundtrack in favor of mournful piano music that doubles as a siren song only Josie can hear, drawing her to Michael’s mother Meredith (Janet McTeer), a famous pianist who blames Josie for Michael’s death.
Or does she? Much of the film concerns a strange push and pull between Josie and Meredith. Meredith openly attacks Josie at Michael’s funeral and even threatens to have her killed, but she also exerts a strange allure. In time she takes her in and they mourn together. Then their relationship turns, then turns again. Whatever their feelings for each other, their love for Michael unites them — but whether that union will help them survive their loss or destroy each other remains the film’s central mystery.