Everyone knows kids can be really creepy. If a small child looks me in the eye and says “The specter of death looms large over your future,” then I say “How did you get in my apartment and why are you floating and oh god the burning has already begun.” Pretty sure everyone has had that happen before. Anyway, the point is: Kids can be f*cking creepy.
This is a movie about a creepy, creepy child. It’s not original in that aspect, but I’ll say that the way they handle it actually is.
Stephanie (Shree Crooks) is a child who has been abandoned in her home by her parents. She plays around with a toy turtle, watches TV (which occasionally mentions something about an apocalypse happening before she flips it to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic), makes her own food, tries to befriend a bunny, and starts swearing because her parents aren’t there. Remember Home Alone’s montage when Kevin realized his family was gone? It’s that, but with a young girl.
Then, we start to find out that things are wrong. Stephanie is stalked by a shadowy figure that never seems to catch her. The body of a young boy, revealed to be her brother, Paul (Jonah Beres), is in a bed in the house and is decaying. Stephanie at first appears to be talking to it sadly, but then starts to blame it for her parents leaving and hits the body repeatedly.
Eventually, her parents return, but that only starts adding to the mystery of what happened with this world.
SUMMARY OF THE END (Spoilers)
Eventually, her parents (Frank Grillo and Anna Torv) return and apologize for leaving. They bury Paul, but Paul’s body is thrown back into the house that night. Stephanie’s dad asks her what she thinks happened when Paul died. It’s revealed that Stephanie killed Paul using telekinetic tentacles that appear to be made from her shadow. The apocalypse is actually a dark force possessing children around the globe. The monster that’s been stalking her is a manifestation of her own powers. Her parents knock her out and try to perform a procedure to disable her powers, but she awakes and destroys the makeshift lab.
Her parents try to poison her, but her tentacles save her. Her father then shoots her multiple times, killing her. He returns home to his wife, but Stephanie reappears, revived. She brutally murders both of her parents, destroys the house, throws away her stuffed turtle, and walks away psychically destroying her entire neighborhood. A shot of the Earth reveals this to be happening everywhere.
END SUMMARY (End Spoilers)
This is a Blumhouse picture, which means that the budget was probably so small it hurt parts of the film. However, as Get Out proved, this can encourage some really inventive filmmaking with a focus on good story and concept to compensate for the lack of effects. This movie comes so close to that, but it just can’t quite keep it going. Admittedly, the lack of quality of the effects at the end is a little bit of an issue, but it’s mostly the way the film tries to handle the third act.
At the beginning of the film, the mystery of what is happening to Stephanie is delivered slowly, with some odd hints surrounding the fact that we’re seeing a small child living on her own. She makes a lot of bad decisions and does goofy things, because she’s an unsupervised child, but we also see some slowly building evidence that the situation is much direr than it seemed. This part of the film is great. Since the director is A Beautiful Mind’s Akiva Goldsman, there should not have been any doubt that we’d really be able to grasp that we’re watching a kind of madness progress.
As far as the performance goes, Shree Crooks does a phenomenal job. She conveys all of the nervousness blended with excitement that you’d expect from a child who finds themselves allowed to do what they want. The scene where she first realizes that she can swear is perfect, with every line and action and look building to something that’s both hilarious and adorable, which gives us a break in the tension while still reminding us of the situation. It’s a great scene, and there are several like that at the beginning of the film.
The progression of Stephanie’s disturbing behaviors is solid, going from mostly innocent behavior that shows she might be haunted by something to showing that she herself is frightening and unhinged.
The movie really just starts going downhill when her parents return, with much of the mystery being revealed with too much exposition and too little demonstration. Then, the ending was intense, but it still felt hollow. It feels like all the weight of the film has been removed by that point, instead replaced by some generic horror mixed with some, admittedly clever, deaths.
I liked the movie for most of it, I just wish that the ending had felt more profound or more like a continuation of the first act rather than a completely different movie that had been stapled on. I don’t know what exactly caused this, but the fact that the beginning of it, and some parts of the end, are so well-done says that this team could definitely make a hell of a film if they had a little bit more consistency towards the end. Since Goldsman’s next film is an adaptation of Firestarter by Stephen King, given the parts of this movie that worked, I think that movie should be amazing.
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