by Hope Madden
Abuse is easy to confuse with a complicated form of love, especially if you’re a child. For the feature length expansion of his 2018 short Slapface, writer/director Jeremiah Kipp complicates his tale of grief and rage with these confusing notions of abuse.
He relies mainly on the unexpected bond between Lucas (August Maturo, exceptional) and a monster sometimes called the Virago Witch (Lukas Hassel, reprising his role from the short). Lucas lost his parents in a car accident and grieves deeply for his mother. He lives just off the woods with his older brother Tom (Mike Manning, who also produces).
Tom’s new girlfriend Anna (Libe Barer) is concerned about the way the siblings live. The only other companionship Lucas has is a trio of bullies. One of those bullies, Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) is willing to be Lucas’s girlfriend as long as he keeps it secret.
In this way, Kipp layers his original tale of grief with conflicting emotional baggage. It’s to his credit, and the endless benefit of his film, that the filmmaker never tidies up these emotional storylines. In fact, it is Lucas’s confusion over the characters who seem to both love and harm him that creates his greatest turmoil.
The monster becomes a remedy of sorts to this internal conflict. The larger-than-life, terrifying presence works much the way that the monster in J.A. Bayona’s 2016 treasure A Monster Calls works. The beast allows Lucas to process the complicated reasons for his pain.
Kipp’s film trades in Bayona’s melancholy magic for something more brutal. But Hassel and Maturo find sincere tenderness in their time together onscreen, which makes the horror even more heartbreaking.
Not every performance is as strong, but Kipp’s ensemble finds nuance in characters that help the film compel more than just terror.