Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a universal language for loss? Imagine if in all the letting go, in all the unlearning of what was, there was something to grasp—not only a pattern to comprehend, but a way to understand each other while everything else dissolves? Oh, if we could learn the language. Maybe we’d catch how pain serrates our words before it cuts others. Maybe we too could experience the cathartic and collective wail Midsommar’s Dani felt, that bittersweet mixture of feeling our darkest of feelings without shame and in loving, nurturing hands. If loss had a language, it’d have countless dialects for innumerable sorrows.
Even after a decade of living it, I still don’t know how to talk about losing my father to dementia. Just when I think I’ve lost all I could, I discover something new to let go of: memory, movement, speech. If there were a dialect for this loss, this ongoing process of finding just how much of a person can unravel, Relic speaks it. Directed and co-written (along with Christian White) by Natalie Erika James, Relic is the first film I’ve seen that speaks to how dementia not only affects the afflicted individual but ruptures a home. In the words of Relic’s leading character, Kay (Emily Mortimer), I too often say, “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing,” when I’m taking care of my father and he floats in this in-between space and time of reality, and I parent my parent. And, like Kay’s daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), Relic unapologetically looks me back in the eye and says, “I think you’re doing it.”
Released in 2020, in a year defined by staggering amounts of loss directly and indirectly related to COVID-19, it’s not too surprising that a film like this—direct in its confrontation of grief—seems to have flown under the radar of critics and horror fans. It can be hard to face these topics head-on, especially amidst those experiencing loss. But in this light especially, Relic is one of the bravest films I’ve seen, as it never uses its horror elements to obscure or diminish its honest and detailed handling of dementia—even if it’s hard to watch.
Its plot is straightforward: Kay goes home with her estranged daughter to take care of her mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), who has dementia. This is Edna’s life to witness. This is Kay’s life to witness as she grapples with the slow realization that her mother is drifting further and further away from who she was. This is Sam’s life to witness as we watch her grieving mother struggle to balance who to take care of and when. Perhaps the most harrowing truth is how badly Edna and Kay want a caretaker, and Sam, the youngest, is the most ill-equipped (though most mentally formidable) to take on this role. She’s supposed to be in that early adulthood stage where having a support system is the most welcomed. I relate the most to Sam as the only matriarch my family had was my mother and once my dad got sick in my early 20s, unwittingly, that role was placed on a confused me.
Unlike, say, 2014’s The Taking of Deborah Logan, there’s not a metaphysical question around what’s happening to Edna. We don’t wonder if we should or shouldn’t believe her pain or look to a demonic force to blame. Sure, there is a shadow in the house, a presence felt in the home that can only sometimes be seen. However, Natalie Erika James uses this being to metaphorically represent what’s felt when you step into the shadow of a home. More than anything, its presence is a way to acknowledge the looming dread Edna faces as much as it is to foreshadow the hidden truths Kay is not quite ready to face at the start of this film.
Before Kay is brave enough to confront her mother’s pain, we see how the home is a physical manifestation of her denial to her mother’s condition. Production designer Steven Jones-Evans crafts a house that embodies decay and abandonment. While there’s a carefully placed bowl of fruit on the table, the lemons and oranges show spots of mold. Sam stumbles into a room that reeks of abandon, filled with boxes upon boxes of things undealt with and pushed aside. Perhaps the largest gut-punch—though I imagine for those who haven’t lived through this experience could feel a bit cheap—is the display of scattered Post-it Notes throughout the home. Each one has a message of something to remember with the added attachment of the audience knowing what is being forgotten. In the early days of my dad’s dementia, Post-it Notes were everywhere. Before he forgot to read, they were his map for living. As Edna descends further into dementia, audiences see perhaps the most tragic Post-it Note, “My name is Edna.” Only to be outmatched by the later Post-it Note, “I’m here.”
As Edna’s condition worsens, we see how it affects Sam and Kay. Tensions, of course, rise with Sam and Kay, as a daughter has to witness her mother losing her mother and a daughter has to witness her mother regressing to a child-like state. Family roles are upended. James goes to great lengths to show this upheaval and fear of the unknown, which is best shown in Kay’s waking nightmares as she too wonders what’s to become of her mother and what’s to become of her. Sam descends into what looks like tunnels in the house but reads as the home’s darkest truths: all the moments that her mother, Kay, was not there for Edna. Kay looks to her mother for answers and is perplexed when there are none, realizing she asked everything she wanted too late.
When Edna returns towards the end of the film’s first act after disappearing for just shy of a week or so, all Kay can say is, “Where have you been?” All Edna says is, “Tea? One sugar, right?” As Sam looks for answers to help her family’s matriarch, Kay struggles to accept the harshest truth: Edna, her mother, needs help, and this need will not wait for whenever Kay is ready to give it. It doesn’t take long for Kay to start experiencing the darker sides of caretaking. She’s furious with her mother, imagining there’s a malicious intent behind what she says or doesn’t say. Part of the film’s horror is in this fury that arises in Kay, as it’s rooted in terrifying questions to ask: at what point do we lose someone? At what point do we lose ourselves? Will we see either in time?
Of course, those questions are too big for Kay, so she starts to tidy up the home, to bring order in a world brimming with chaos. And the home, of course, rebels right back with an increasing infestation of filth and decay. To James’ directorial credit, no one else other than the family enters this home, which only serves to underline how isolating and singular this experience is for a family. Neighbors don’t want to go to a place where someone could be reactionary, where sundowning is a threat, where a lapse of memory could cause someone to bite or scream or wail. I know how this experience seems to magically transform a home into a taboo place that family and friends avoid because it’s too complicated. I too wish I never had to call 911 on my father during a fit or go on a search for him to find him sitting in an Applebee’s. To Relic’s credit, it allows space for Kay to be annoyed at Edna without ever turning anyone into a victim or villain, as the real disease is the condition that’s befalling the household, the shadows that grow and grow and are impossible to fight.
Without spoiling the film’s triumphant final act, the crux of Relic’s power relies on acknowledging that a loss like this does not happen in a vacuum. Although we can’t control how we grieve, we do have to accept responsibility for the actions it causes. A loss like this will ripple through a household. Relic balances its time thoughtfully between Edna, Kay, and Sam solely to prove this point. Each experience is part of the overall singular grief that dementia befalls to a household, and thankfully, no one’s interpretation of it is sidelined. We see that especially with a condition like dementia, something carried by blood, how important it is for us to confront our bloodlines, our legacy, and all the horrific things that can entail. And, conversely, how it creates a language that those who do experience it can understand far better than those who haven’t experienced it.
To James’ credit, the gift of this movie is its focus on what happens once we confront the harshest of truths. Once we stop running from the pain, or in Kay’s case avoiding wondering exactly when things went wrong, we can learn how to transform our sense of “normal” into a “new normal,” and that gives room for a bit of gracious surrender. I hope no one has to learn this dialect, but if you do, there’s comfort in Relic’s ability to embrace not just depicting human decay but reminding us to make space for the ceremonial process of letting go. Dementia’s process takes its slow toll and can elicit everything from rage to sorrow as we watch what it truly means for a body to retreat into itself. However, with each step back, as Relic shows, it’s a step for us to let go with a small piece of who we knew, to let them let go of that piece, too. More than anything, Relic asks us to not look away, to bear witness to their final act. There might not be a harder thing than watching a parent age backwards, and if this is the case, we need more films like Relic that give a starting place to discuss it.