If someone decided to make a documentary about those mothers who go on Dr. Phil to talk about how their young child is trying to stab them in their sleep, it would probably look something like Katrin Gebbe’s Pelican Blood. It’s an incredibly effective drama about how children’s actions have powerful effects on a family, about a mother’s resilience, and the desperate lengths she goes through to save her family.

The German-language film follows Wiebke (Nina Hoss), a single mother who owns a horse training facility for riot police. She has an adopted daughter, Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo), and the film’s first half highlights Wiebke’s desire and success in adopting another little girl, Raya (Katerina Lipovska). Both of her little girls bond quickly, and they seem to be the perfect family, but it’s clear that there’s something wrong. Darkness follows Raya, as indicated by the look in Wiebke’s horses’ eyes and in their restlessness in the night. They’re spooked, and it’s not long before the rest of the family is, too.

Horror comes with the piercing screams of Nicolina as Raya attacks her. She’s seemingly a nod to The Bad Seed as she tears their room apart, throws tantrums, and screams at the top of her lungs for hours. She rarely speaks, but instead growls like an animal. What Lipovska achieves here may just be the best performance by a child actor ever. Lipovska has a natural ability to keep a sinister straight face. She’s frightening. Her family is afraid of her, and so is the audience. There’s something dark behind Raya’s eyes, and she hints that her actions aren’t her own; there’s an unseen evil force at play.

Pelican Blood goes from The Bad Seed to The Omen meets The Babadook quite quickly, but the horror comes and goes in this genre mishmash. It’s a well-executed slow-burn drama that’s not full-blown horror, but the fact that it lingers in the background creates an unnerving sense of unease and suspense. Raya can explode at any moment. Her psychopathic tendencies are tearing Wiebke’s home apart, and the mother herself as well. The desperation and strength of a mother’s love are felt in Hoss’ performance. Wiebke is desperate to make Raya love her, but in this desperation she is inadvertently straining her relationship with Nicolina, affecting her work and other relationships. She’s falling apart physically and mentally, but refuses to give up. Hoss’ performance has a subtlety to it that manages to create the necessary emotional impact.

The evil unseen force, the demonic energy inside Raya, is downplayed most of the film until the third act, which prevents Pelican Blood from being a perfect achievement. The third act is rushed, as it piles on all the horror that’s been building up for most of the film. This drastic shift in tone feels like Gebbe’s desperate attempt to cement the film in the horror genre. As a result, the emotional payoff wanes.

There’s no denying the beauty in Moritz Schultheiß’s cinematography, and the way the film cleverly plays with shadow and sound helps build the lingering tension. The performances are also a standout, but what really makes the film is its use of symbolism. An ancient legend of a mother pelican striking her breast in order to revive her dying young with her blood is rooted in Catholicism and is referenced in the film. Raya is essentially the dead chick that Wiebke must keep alive, and Pelican Blood is certainly a unique addition to the already long list of narratives that demonstrate the power of a mother’s love.

Movie Score: 3.5/5

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