17th Jul2019

Fantasia 2019: ‘Darlin’ Review

by Chris Cummings

Stars: Lauren Canny, Bryan Batt, Nora-Jane Noone, Cooper Andrews, Pollyanna McIntosh, John Spud McConnell, Geraldine Singer, Maddie Nichols, Mackenzie Michelle Graham, Jeff Pope, Eugenie Bonderant, Sabrina Gennarino, Thomas Francis Murphy | Written and Directed by Pollyanna McIntosh

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When I first heard about Darlin’ I was immediately interested in seeing it. Why? Well… Pollyanna McIntosh is an actress I’ve been a fan of since her incredible performance in the Lucky McKee film The Woman back in 2011. Since then I’ve enjoyed her in numerous roles, from White Settlers to to Let Us Prey, and even her role as Jadis in The Walking Dead before I threw in the towel on that show. Seeing McIntosh go behind the camera for the first time here was something that intrigued me greatly.

Darlin’ is written and directed by McIntosh and based on characters by both Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee. A stand-alone sequel to 2011’s terrific and brutal McKee joint, The Woman, Darlin’ doesn’t require you to have seen the previous film at all, but I do urge you to, if only for the fact that it’s so damn good, and for my money one of the best horror films of the past decade.

This is both horror and coming-of-age film blended into one convincing, beautifully shot and well constructed story. The film opens up immediately with an introduction to its titular character, Darlin’, a young feral woman not unlike the McIntosh played Woman in the 2011 movie. She walks into a hospital after being dropped off nearby by The Woman and undergoes a series of tests. In the hospital we meet a kind-hearted and good-natured nurse named Tony who wants the best for Darlin’, and a doctor who seemingly wants to just sedate her and have her put into a care facility run by the church. While this is going on we flash back and forth to The Woman herself played by Pollyanna McIntosh, wandering around a wooded area. Being reintroduced to this character as well as the new character, Darlin’, tells us early-on that there must be some sort of relationship between the two feral women, bringing in a mystery immediately, and a tension that only grows as the film goes on.

There’s a growing dread from both the unknown relationship between Darlin’ and The Woman, the reason as to why they have left the wild and scampered into civilisation, as well as the impending cloud of Darlin’ being taken away by a misunderstanding and forceful Bishop. The doctors who would rather sedate her, instead of trying to understand her, create a big question mark on what the right decision to make is. We see The Woman on the outside of the hospital, she cuts throats and stalks the darkness, and we’re unsure what her aim is for a while. The coming-of-age elements ask whether Darlin’ is young enough to actually be saved from her feral life and given a chance at a normal and safe existence, and that The Woman herself is perhaps too far gone, too feral and too damaged to find a way back to a real sense of humanity. Her animalistic nature at the forefront of her personality.

You find as the film progresses that aside from Tony, the villain of the story is the male character that we encounter, the crooked, abusing and cold Bishop. The characters we feel for, worry about and root for, however, are women, often women under the torment and hard thumb of the men. I was happy to see Nora-Jane Noone as Sister Jennifer in the film. She’s an actress I’ve had a lot of time for since her exceptional performance as Bernadette in 2002’s The Magdelene Sisters. She put in a great, subtle and complex performance here too.

Once Darlin’ arrives at St. Philomena’s Group Home for Girls, we see just how much of a hold The Bishop has on the women and girls of his church. There’s a real atmosphere of discomfort when he’s on-screen. Bryan Batt (Mad Men) does a phenomenal job in the role, showing a false-niceness that reeks of manipulative bigotry, he’s both creepy and domineering, a villain who is very easy to hate. The emotional and physical abuse Darlin’ encounters, as well as that of the other girls in the home, pulls the story into the territory of cult-horror. There’s also the intrigue of a teenage girl who has those same feelings as any other teenage girl, from attraction to others, to friendship, love, growing up, changing… it just so happens that the teenager in question comes from a feral background. She grunts and growls, she often crawls and stands on her hands and feet. The struggle for normality in an abusive place makes for a very interesting plot.

Finding people to trust in a difficult place, Darlin’ begins to lean on Sister Jennifer and fellow “inmate” Billy, played by Maddie Nichols (The Purge). Her relationships with the likes of Tony, Billy, Jennifer and The Woman are curious and offer us a glance of who Darlin’ is, who she could be and who she was before. Lauryn Canny does an excellent job playing Darlin’ here. She manages to take the character along a journey that see’s her feral and wild, curious and scared, trusting and happy. There are so many ups and downs to Darlin’ and Canny brings a real sense of innocence to the role, not overplaying anything. Her performance comes across as authentic. She, along with Pollyanna McIntosh in her reprised role as The Woman, are the focal points of the story and in the end I wanted to see and hear more of their story. Perhaps we’ll even get a chance to see more of this story in the future.

There’s plenty of gore and slasher horror in here to please and quench the thirst of fans who are after that kind of stuff, but there’s lots more to it too. The coming-of-age side to the film is superbly done, and they even find a way to throw in some black comedy too to lighten things up. The scene of The Woman experiencing a car journey for the first time really had me laughing out loud.

The cinematography from Halyna Hutchins was really fantastic. I loved the way the camera framed the characters, thoughtful shots such as the light from outside coating Sister Jennifer in a glow while The Bishop stood in the dimness of the room beside her. It’s curious and striking shots like this that helped to create questions of their own as well as being so aesthetically pleasing. Pollyanna McIntosh did a wonderful job here, in both her subtle and less-is-more writing style and her camera work. Her ability to blend together horror, gore and a tale of growing up, is realised brilliantly. The fact that this is her debut at director is testament of her talents and only makes me more excited to see what she does in the future.

Darlin’ isn’t merely a horror film about a feral girl. In other hands and with less thought and care it could have been just a run-of-the-mill gore horror, but instead it asks questions about emotional, physical and religious abuse, about the divide between men and women, about mental illness and the homeless situation. It asks questions about friendship and loyalty and the women we see who find themselves in positions of repress like the nuns and girls under the stifling thumb of the church, some of them survivors of abuse who have found themselves in yet another place of abuse, this time a coordinated one with a cover of care. It’s a deep, complex and weighty theme to undertake in the form of a horror film, but it works incredibly well. It’s bold, brutal and beautifully done.

**** 4/5

Darlin’ screened at this years Fantasia International Film Festival on July 15th 2019.

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