Saturday, September 25, 2010

Edmonton International Film Festival: The Loved Ones

Visceral, sticky, and avert-your-eyes ugly—that’s not just a description of most people’s high school years, but also The Loved Ones, Australian writer/director Sean Byrne’s lively marriage of teenage melodrama with splatter horror. Part of the fun seems to be finding suitable reference points for this genre mash-up—the festival programmer introduced it to us as the combination of John Hughes with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—which makes the film seem much more glib and gimmicky than it actually is. Even as the violence goes for grisly excess (there were a few walkouts once feet started getting nailed to the floor), Byrne remembers to treat the emotional wounds of his characters with respect and sincerity. The threat of bodily mutilation is always good for prompting some reflexive cringes in the audience, but the real horror lies in discovering the massive psychic scars nurtured by these characters.

The film—Byrne’s first feature—is helped immeasurably by Robin McLeavy’s high-wire performance as Lola, an awkward girl who asks Brent, the boy of her dreams, to be her prom date. He politely declines and heads to the school parking lot, where he steams up some car windows with his girlfriend. Perpetually wounded and completely domineering, Lola witnesses everything and has her servile father kidnap Brent and bring him to a private prom / torture chamber (as if anyone needed to underscore the connection between high school dances and sadism), complete with a disco ball twirling throughout the madness. Mutilation inevitably ensues.

The film, much like one of its fumbling teenagers, is not without its awkward moments. A subplot featuring one of Brent’s friends taking a curiously beautiful goth girl to the prom feels tenuously connected to the rest of the film, even if it does provide a bit of relief from the gruesomeness of the Lola scenes. Built around the contrast of slobbish, overeager boy with hardened, indifferent girl, these scenes are mostly played for light comedy. But there are also hints that this girl loved one of Lola’s earlier victims, with the implication that this traumatic loss left her in the damaged state in which we discover her. All of which is thematically sound, but functionally irrelevant. The central conceit of the film is so potent that this innocuous subplot does more to distract from than enrich the main story. Two girls wearing prom dresses wrestling over a knife speaks more eloquently to the primal truths of high school than a thousand tuxedo t-shirts.

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