With the 2019 SXSW Film Festival still in full swing this week, here’s a look at three of the titles that have recently debuted at the festival as part of the Midnighters programming slate: Darlin’ from Pollyanna McIntosh, Richard Bates, Jr.’s Tone-Deaf, and Body at Brighton Rock, directed by Roxanne Benjamin.
Darlin’: Pollyanna McIntosh has been a steadfast fixture on the indie genre scene for years now, and has been a great addition to the cast of The Walking Dead as well, so it was great to see her taking on both the writing and directorial reins for Darlin’, the follow-up story to Lucky McKee’s The Woman (in which McIntosh portrayed the film’s titular character). A sequel that unfolds in real time in relation to its predecessor, Darlin’ picks up with The Woman (with McIntosh reprising her role) dropping off her feral teenage daughter (Lauryn Canny) outside of a hospital, and the institution is unable to contend with the young woman’s carnivorous proclivities and wild outbursts.
They seek the assistance of a local bishop (Bryan Batt) who runs a home for orphaned girls, and he sees the girl’s animalistic nature as an opportunity to cash in on changing her into a proper young lady as his way of keeping his orphanage going with the assistance of the church, who would surely be impressed by his ability to lead this godless woman into a life of faith. But the bishop underestimates his pet project, and all hell is unleashed once Darlin’ decides she’s done being someone else’s puppet and wants to be in control of her own destiny.
Considering the feminist undertones at play in The Woman, and for as much as I loved McKee’s work on that film, it was great to see McIntosh be the one to continue this story, and it’s evident with this narrative that she’s ready to tear down the patriarchy with her art, and that’s absolutely rad. Some of the dialogue does feel a bit clunky at times, and the pacing is a bit off in some of the scenes as well (especially the finale, which just zips right by, never really allowing audiences to settle in with what’s unfolding), but as a whole, there’s a lot to enjoy with Darlin’, especially when McIntosh leans into some of the darkly comedic elements in the story (there’s a scene where The Woman is riding in a car with her head out the window, a la Harry and the Hendersons and it left me with the biggest smile). And for as great as McIntosh is in Darlin’, the real discovery in the film is Canny who is a complete revelation here, and I hope we see a lot more from the up-and-coming actress in the near future.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
Tone-Deaf: As someone who has been a huge fan of Richard Bates, Jr.’s ever since Excision, I am always excited to see what story he’s going to take on next with his twisted storytelling sensibilities. And for his latest, RBJ explores the ongoing war between baby boomers and millennials in Tone-Deaf, which features Robert Patrick squaring off against Amanda Crew (who was also great in Final Destination 3) in a battle for the ages (literally).
True to form, Bates, Jr. takes no prisoners with his bluntly forward approach to relationships, human nature, and the generational difference that has been a huge issue in society as of late. And to really drive home his message, there are several moments in Tone-Deaf where Patrick’s character, Harvey, breaks the fourth wall in an effort to chastise the film’s audience, which undoubtedly skewers much younger than his character is, and it just feels like such a baby boomer thing to do.
The story in Tone-Deaf revolves around a young woman named Olive (Crew) who has just lost her job and recently put the kibosh on a romantic relationship that was heading straight into Nowheresville. In desperate need of a change of scenery, Olive hits the road and rents an old mansion owned by the reclusive Harvey, who decides that upon her arrival, he’s ready to unleash his anger on how this new generation of youngins are ruining the world on the unsuspecting Olive. But the whippersnapper has a few tricks up her sleeve once push comes to shove, and Harvey quickly realizes he may have underestimated the fortitude of his prey when Olive refuses to go down without a fight.
Tonally, Tone-Deaf is a bit all over the map early on, but once Harvey begins to amp up his game (which includes a nasty gag involving a spider and another featuring some truly cringeworthy foot trauma), that’s when the film feels like it’s finally getting settled, as both RBJ’s narrative and pitch-black humor become razor sharp. Patrick and Crew are excellent in Tone-Deaf as well, with their eventual verbal jabs at each other during the finale being relatable in so many ways, and while it may not quite have the polish that Excision did (sorry, my deeply rooted love for that film probably will never be topped), fans of Bates, Jr.’s work should find Tone-Deaf to be music to their ears.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
Body at Brighton Rock: Roxanne Benjamin is known to many genre fans for her excellent work at the helm of different segments in various horror anthologies, as well as being a producer on several other notable indie projects over the years, which makes Body at Brighton Rock her first time taking on a full-fledged feature film, and overall, she does a solid job with her story of an ill-equipped park ranger named Wendy (played by newcomer Karina Fontes), who stumbles across a dead body in the woods and is tasked with keeping an eye on the corpse overnight until help can arrive the next morning. But the longer she’s out in the wilderness, the more Wendy begins to struggle with a sense of creeping dread around her, pushing the young woman to dig deep to find a strength within her that she never knew she possessed in the first place.
While there are some lulls to the story where the film feels like it spins its wheels a bit, Body at Brighton Rock is still an admirable effort from Benjamin, who crafts an intriguing cinematic rumination on the effects of isolation and fear, and being able to rise above our own self-doubts to overcome any obstacles thrown our way. And while I did enjoy the film, it did feel slightly out of place as part of the Midnighters slate, as Brighton Rock tends to feel more like a dramatic thriller than it does a full-blooded genre effort (which isn’t a bad thing at all, but it ended up being something of a quieter affair to get through for late-night crowds, and perhaps it feels like it would be better enjoyed a bit earlier in the day).
Body at Brighton Rock does feature some gorgeous cinematography from Hannah Getz, though, a great breakout performance from Fontes, and Benjamin’s use of “Dead Man’s Party” by Oingo Boingo and Exposé’s “Point of No Return” were truly inspired as well. But to me, it feels like the type of film that should connect more with younger fans than some hardened horror lovers who might be looking for something with a bit more meat on its bones. That being said, I think Benjamin has done a solid job of demonstrating here that she knows how to craft a compelling narrative, and I’m excited to see whatever she does next.
Movie Score: 3/5
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