The Babadook Review

Posted: September 1, 2014 in 2014 Fantasy FilmFest, Drama, Horror, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

The BabadookWhile the debate goes on about female roles in mainstream movies, women continue to kill it – literally and figuratively – in genre films. On the second day of the 2014 Berlin Fantasy Filmfest, audiences were treated to consecutive screenings of a trio of strong flicks with an actress in the lead role, two of which also have a female director/screenwriter behind the projects. Honeymoon stars Rose Leslie, and Starry Eyes features Alex Essoe, but it is Essie Davis in The Babadook who turns in the most remarkable performance. Working in her feature film debut, director/writer Jennifer Kant unleashes childhood horrors on a defenseless widow (Davis) and her maladjusted son (Noah Wiseman) in a movie that works the nerves of the audience by manifesting familial dysfunction and behavioral disorders into the ultimate boogeyman in the closet.

Davis plays Amelia, a struggling single mom who lost her husband almost seven years earlier in a car accident while they were on the way to the hospital to have their son. Neither mother nor son have ever adjusted to the loss, and with another birthday for young Samuel upcoming, the fissures in this household are threatening to split irreparably. Amelia seeks solace in her bed, either through dreams in which she floats or through the more earthbound movements of her vibrator, but she is frustrated in both pursuits by the constant screams of her offspring, who is tormented by fears of monsters. Samuel’s coping mechanism is to build mini-Rube Goldberg catapults and crossbows, a hobby which ends in his expulsion from school.

It is all Amelia can do to hold onto her job at the nursing home, while holding off child services, and trying desperately for just a few hours of sleep. First, she must wrestle her son and his fears into submission each night, which means a bedtime story. A new one appears on the shelf, but the pull-out, pop-up book entitled The Babadook turns out to be an illustrated guide to home invasion by childhood monsters. Amelia discards the book, but the damage is done. Samuel’s trauma has solidified into a conviction that The Babadook is coming.

But who is The Babadook? Is it the hyperactive, violent child, who’s a danger to his peers? Is it the parent that teeters on the edge of abuse and violence against her child? Or is it a Jungian nightmare to be repeated until resolved? Who knows – it may even be real, especially when seen coming out of the neighbor’s closet as she sits unaware. Director/writer Kent effectively makes the pitch, but can’t quite close the deal on the story. The plot begins to tread water, and the resolution is not fully satisfactory. Still, Kent reveals a visual style with flair, and her direction and writing powerfully convey the challenges facing a single mother.

Essie Davis is phenomenal in all aspects of her performance: her shattered appearance, her winging body language, her eyes that plead for help but know that none is coming. When she snarls and snaps at Samuel, we can’t know whether it’s The Babadook or a too-human woman who has been pushed too far. Wiseman as the son is a find as well. Viewers can not accuse Kent of trying to work on their sentiments by using child charms. Samuel is a snarling, screaming feral child that would try any parent’s patience to the breaking point.

The Babadook is as much drama as it is horror, a raw experience that while not quite as scary as we would like, invites more contemplation that we would have thought.

Two and a half stars.

 

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