Cult Hero

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Cult Hero
"There are a lot of cute ideas here which don’t all successfully come to fruition but which entertain nonetheless." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

They say that the secret of a happy marriage is communication. Kallie (a magnificent Liv Collins) is all about communication. At least, she’s all about talking – the listening is something she might need to work on. She talks in her professional role, selling people upmarket houses. She talks to inconsiderate people getting in her way, like the kids selling lemonade who almost certainly don’t have a commercial license and could put off her clients. She talks at home, managing every detail of husband Brad’s (Justin Bott) life. It escapes her attention that he intermittently tries to kill himself, but she does notice that he’s behaving oddly. When he buys a painting without her permission, she decides it’s time for action. A quick bit of internet research later, and she enrols him in the Ascension programme.

The strange clothing choices, ritualistic behaviour and sheer niceness of the people at Hope Acres, the residential wellness centre where the Ascension Programme is run, might tip readers off to the fact that this is, in fact, a cult. Brad is happy enough to go along with it, just relieved to have a bit of breathing space. Kallie, however, gradually becomes suspicious, and is dissatisfied by the way she is treated after asking to speak to the manager. Nobody seems to understand that Brad is her husband and she should have access to him whenever she wants. She realises that she needs help.

Enter Dale Domazar (Ry Barrett), macho man, low rent celebrity and cult buster extraordinaire. We see him in his promotional videos posing in body armour, with paired pistols, sunglasses and CGI explosions, a bikini-clad woman on each arm. But Dale has fallen on hard times. After one cult bust failed to work out the way he expected, with deadly consequences, he found his show cancelled, and now he has been forced to resort to making his living by wishing children happy birthday and breaking up with people’s boyfriends on their behalf. Kallie’s call is a lifeline. He’s determined to see the job through no matter what it costs – and, of course, to capture it all on video for the home audience.

For all the adventure involved here, it’s really the characters who drive the film. Whilst Barrett is perfect in role, there’s a limited amount he can do with Dale, who doesn’t get much chance to evolve, so it’s really Collins on whom everything depends, and whilst there’s no danger of Kallie becoming a better human being, she does toughen up. Though it’s fundamentally a comedy, the film, which screened as part of the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, packs in some seriously gory scenes, from cult sacrifice to a masked man trying to put a bloody end to Kallie’s investigation. The real viciousness lies elsewhere, however, as Kallie begins to suspect that her arch rival Cynthia, who sells houses using shameless sex appeal, is somehow involved with whatever is going on at Hope Acres.

There are a lot of cute ideas here which don’t all successfully come to fruition but which entertain nonetheless, as long as you can cope with an hour and a half of dramatic fanfares and everybody talking as if they’re in an advert. Where the first half of the film is strong, the latter struggles a bit, threatening to collapse under its own weight, but there’s still an emotional payoff at the end, and here the undercover exposé format provides natural structure. The last decade has seen a lot of films aim to pull off this kind of spoof and fall short. Although he’s working on a very low budget, director Jesse Thomas Cook succeeds because he understands that it takes real care and attention to make something which looks trashy and is still watchable. Though it will be too daft for some viewers, this is likely to become a favourite for others.

Reviewed on: 01 Aug 2022
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Manager-summoning control freak Kallie Jones attempts to rescue her husband from a 'wellness center' with the help of a washed-up expert cult buster.

Director: Jesse Thomas Cook

Writer: Tony Burgess, Liv Collins, Jesse Thomas Cook

Starring: Liv Collins, Ry Barrett, Justin Bott, Tony Burgess, Jessica Vano

Year: 2022

Country: Canada

Festivals:

Fantasia 2022

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