by Hope Madden
Does this story sound familiar? Friends head into the woods, run into some trouble finding their exact camping spot, settle for an “almost right” spot, tell campfire stories about a lurker in the bushes, and die.
If it doesn’t sound familiar, you are new.
So why, then, is Cub (Welp) immediately scarier than other campground slashers?
Because they’re all little kids.
That is correct. It’s a group of wee Belgian scouts out on their big camping excursion into the wrong damn woods.
Co-writer/director Jonas Govaerts uses that small twist to build a lot of tension as imaginative little Sam (Maurice Luijten) – a boy with an uncertain yet tragic past – believes the campfire tales of Kai, a feral boy who hunts the nearby woods.
Govaerts knows how to wring anxiety as he unveils character, beginning with a group countdown as Sam sprints to try to make the truck that’s leaving for camp. Then there’s a run in with unfriendly French hoods claiming the right to the original camp site, not to mention the inner-troop skirmishes for hierarchy. Childhood is tough, tribalism is brutal, and camping in the woods is just plain stupid. If you don’t know that, again, you are new. No one survives the woods.
Most of the film’s success is due to the strong performances, particularly from Luijten, who is equal parts adorable, earnest, and impressionable. The adult cast is solid enough in a film that knows its territory and agrees to do what it can without redefining anything.
Which, of course, is also Cub’s biggest weakness.
Though Govaerts foreshadows quite well, and his camera captures both the wonder and terror of the woods, he can’t entirely overcome the template he’s chosen for his film. The entire effort just feels too familiar.
That doesn’t make the film an outright disappointment, either. There are bright, gnarly moments here and there. Govaerts just can’t finally deliver all the goods.