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Monday, December 8, 2014

On Imperfect Single Mothers, Meaningful Horror and THE BABADOOK

During our latest Cinema in Noir Twitter chat on Sunday, we talked about THE BABADOOK, the new horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent that has a different meaning for everyone who watches it. Which is a great thing to say about a film in a genre that these days too often succumbs to okey doke storytelling.

If you're unfamiliar, the film follows a widowed mother (Essie Davis) who, still reeling from the death of her husband, struggles to deal with her unruly son Samuel alone (Noah Wiseman) as a sinister indiscernible force from a children's book threatens to break the two of them apart. But the film is far more complex than its eerie boogeyman appeal (which, to its credit, legitimately scares you to the core). It portrays a deeper layer of single parenthood that we don't see enough on the big screen. While many films portray single parents as overcompensating, paranoid about having social lives and on a constant search for perfection (or, on the opposite spectrum, as uncaring, oblivious and abusive), THE BABADOOK has that healthy realistic middle ground in the sense that Amelia (Davis) sincerely loves her child, but, yes, he often gets on her last nerve. And you can feel her aggravation, her visceral annoyance over Samuel just failing to listen, failing to just "be normal" like other kids, for a change. It is that familiar claustrophobic feeling that sometimes comes with parenthood. It's uncomfortable to watch on screen because we don't often see this played out in film. But it doesn't make her a villain; it makes her human.

In fact, as I watched THE BABADOOK I thought of the time when my mother cried over spilled milk one day. Literally, not figuratively. I was around 6 years old or so, wreaking havoc around our small apartment. I think I made as much noise as possible with every toy I owned (I was an only child, and constantly tried to pretend our two-person home was filled with other people by creating an elaborate mess using many sounds). I was swinging one of my favorite noisemakers around the kitchen when I knocked an entire carton of milk onto the floor, spilling all its contents. Before I could truly react to what I did, she whipped around and yelled "What are you doing to me?!" I froze, terrified. I was prepared for my punishment, or a cold reprimanding, but this was different. This somehow reflected back on to her personally, and I couldn't comprehend at the time how that was possible and how I could fix it. I felt horrible and helpless. But I never felt unloved. Later that day when my mother apologized and made it clear that her outburst was not a reflection of me, I then realized how vital our relationship was, more importantly how symbiotic it was. I learned that just as much as my mother protected me, I was to protect her, no matter what.

Likewise, there is a scene in THE BABADOOK in which Amelia is so overtaken by the force that she becomes unrecognizable, a genuine threat to her son. But instead of fleeing from her or feeling any less love for her, Samuel assures her that he will not leave her side and he will do whatever he can to protect her. Because that is often how it is as single mother and her child -- it's frustrating and unbearable at times, yes, but filled with so much mutual love and security. Nestled deep within this teeny Australian thriller packs a simple yet profound message about what it often feels like to be a single parent, and even what it feels like to be the child of that parent. Kent gives both characters equal agency, delivering a balanced story that is never overwhelming. We need more of these original stories, if only so that they aren't seen as enigmatic or strange. They deserve to be told.

Rating: B+ (**** out of *****)

THE BABADOOK is now playing. Watch the trailer:


Ashlee Blackwell said...

Bravo Candice! This is a great write up and I really enjoy your perspective on it. It's accurate with a twinge of personal. I've read many reviews that don't focus on the "equal agency" of both characters with a decent understanding of Samuel's full position in the film.

Keep slaying, lady!

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