Friday, May 7, 2010


One of the happiest, most affirmative experiences at the just-wrapped San Francisco International Film Festival was this gloriously assured horror film from Australia. First-time (?!) writer-director Sean Byrne crafts a vivid and terrifying story of Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel), a young man in crisis. Sean is reeling from the death of his father in a car accident, balancing suicidal, self-harming impulses with teen pursuits and a relationship with a girl trying hard to connect with him. No surprise that Brent would wind up on the radar of taciturn wallflower Lola (Robin McLeavy), who tentatively asks Brent to an upcoming school dance. Brent's already got a date for the night, which is slated to be the most memorable and harrowing night of his life.

In addition to being a terrifyingly suspenseful film (there's so much more to Lola than her almost subliminal first scene would suggest; and the answer to those wondering if Brent's predicament can get worse is always a sprightly, "Yes, it can!"), THE LOVED ONES offers powerfully-realized and totally believable characters. Byrne takes a startlingly mature approach to his characters' back stories, offering tiny vignettes that tell us all we need to know about them. Plenty of clues are offered to piece together the characters' rich histories, and the film assumes (and rewards) intelligence on the part of its audience by letting us connect the dots ourselves. A lively subplot involving a friend of Brent's and his surprisingly-willing date connects to the main story in a quiet but surprising way.

Your proprietor's being careful not to reveal too much - much of the joy of the film is in the details, which are more than capably laid out by Byrne and his uniformly solid cast. Teenage issues and escalating violence are common tropes in today's horror films, but THE LOVED ONES handles both more capably and effectively than many of its contemporaries. It's completely engrossing in the moment, and many of the film's fleeting details - pictures in a scrapbook, the steely look in a vengeful father's eyes, the quiet grief settling like a permanent guest in a broken home - linger in the mind and heart for hours after. And it's as visceral and fun as it is smart and moving. Though I'm braced for what must be an inevitable Hollywood remake, I'm hoping this - the genuine article in myriad ways - gets the audience it deserves.

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