Hellbender

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Hellbender
"Mostly played out as a two-hander, this is a film which combines ambitious world-building with an intimacy and specificity that draw the viewer in." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

Looking after a kid in their late teens is always a challenge, and not just because of the effects of hormones or fear of what will happen when they leave the nest. It’s a time when, no matter how much they may have resisted it before, parents are forced to acknowledge that their offspring are separate people with their own personalities, ideas, and ways of looking at the world. Most parents hope that they will, at least, share their carefully inculcated moral values, but there are a lot of other narratives out there in the world and, furthermore, the power of genetic predispositions can be strong.

Izzy (Zelda Adams) has grown up alone in her quiet woodland home – all but for the mother (director Toby Poser, also Zelda’s mother in real life) who has told her that she can’t be around other people due to an illness which causes immunosuppression. When she discovers that this may not be true, Izzy’s whole world is turned upside down – but there’s more to this than just a possessive mother trying to hold onto her little girl. There’s a reason why Izzy’s mother has chosen to raise her in seclusion, and it’s not just Izzy’s safety she’s worried about. A life lived close to nature, filled with herb lore and talk of spellcraft, is only the surface of it. Izzy is about to discover something unexpected within herself, leading her to question everything she’s been told about how she ought to live.

Mostly played out as a two-hander, this is a film which combines ambitious world-building with an intimacy and specificity that draw the viewer in. It screened at Fantasia to an enthusiastic audience and is undoubtedly the Poser/Adams clan’s most impressive film to date (with further contributions from Zelda’s father John and older sister Lulu). There are references to folk horror tradition, notably The Blair Witch Project, and some well researched botanical detail, but most of what we see is original creation, with a carefully developed mythology brought to life by the two leads.

Poser’s shot choices here are notably bolder than in the family’s last film, The Deeper You Dig, and there’s some particularly impressive montage work on display. The surreal variety of elements brought together in these scenes contributes to the sense that we are witnessing something uncanny at large in the midst of the mundane. This is aided by Zelda’s impressive ability to switch registers mid-scene, something which may well see her picked for villainous roles in the future.

Hellbender, to its credit, is more than a study of villainy. Its moral ambiguity ultimately takes second place to the family dynamic as both mother and daughter are forced to re-evaluate one another and work out how much of their bond can survive the changes taking place. Shot on a low budget, it manages its limited resources well and punches above its weight. It’s a challenge to conventional depictions of witchcraft as simply monstrous or innocent and persecuted, presenting us instead with what feels like a view from the inside.

Reviewed on: 16 Aug 2021
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A lonely teenage girl finds guidance in her family’s suppressed supernatural lineage.
Amazon link

Director: Toby Poser

Writer: John Adams, Toby Poser

Starring: John Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams

Year: 2021

Runtime: 86 minutes

Festivals:

Fantasia 2021

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