Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"It's essentially a simple premise but the delivery is a thing of beauty." | Photo: Fantasia Film Festival

"With an arm like yours, you don't want to use that. It's too unpredictable," advises grandpa Jacob (Michael Ironside) when young Henry (Luca Villacis) is showing him his baseball pitches. He advises sticking to something simpler, but Henry, despite the affability of his response, is far from a simple boy. His ability to deal with (and deal out) the unpredictable could save his life.

Henry has been dropped off with Jacob at the last minute because his parents have to travel across country for a funeral. His mother has been estranged from the old man since the death of her own mother, whom she found hanging in the barn, but Jacob agrees to help out nonetheless, and although he immediately puts the boy to work - he has a farm to run - he also shows a friendly side, cooks him dinner and tries to make him feel welcome. But when unexpected circumstances mean that Henry finds himself alone on the farm, an overly friendly neighbour turns out to be a potentially deadly threat, and the boy must use all his ingenuity to survive.

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It's essentially a simple premise but the delivery is a thing of beauty. Villacis turns in one of those rare performances that perfectly captures what it means to be 12 without alienating adult viewers. We see his physical and emotional vulnerability, the hopelessness of him trying to match his opponent's strength, yet we also see his quick-wittedness and an ingenuity that too many people lose in adulthood. He is by no means an easy victim. There are very few points at which viewers will want to shout at him to do things differently. This is the sort of film that will make parents want to encourage their children to play more violent video games. And yes, there are points at which viewers might be reminded of Home Alone, but the tone here is very different - because as he works to engineer his survival, Henry gradually uncovers hints of why this is happening that take the film to a very dark place.

Knuckleball screened at this year's Fantasia. In the past, the festival has shown a number of films about women trying to survive in this kind of cat and mouse situation, but switching the focus to a child gives it much more power, partly because the comparative physical helplessness of the protagonist is much more believable and partly because the idea of sexual threat to a child will conjure up immediate horror in most viewers, with no sense of an invitation to relish the suffering involved. Indeed, director Michael Peterson is very careful not to present events in a way that might titillate, even though we can see the desire felt by the boy's assailant. In this role, Munro Chambers is perhaps just a little too obviously creepy, letting us see the monster too early and not showing us enough of the man, but then we have to accept that a 12-year-old would be able to spot the warning signs and act on them with confidence, so the film might have lost believability had it gone too far in the other direction.

Though the music is a bit too heavy-handed, Peterson is very good at building suspense, inviting us to feel fearful of mundane objects in the early scenes long before any threat has made itself manifest. He keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout, with unnerving slow sequences in between the action scenes - of which there are many, some of them quite gruesome. We are given just enough information to make sense of the larger plot and the horrific meaning of things glimpsed in passing without any lengthy exposition. Crucially, our identification with Henry is never broken by the invitation to understand things that he cannot, and watching the boy forced to come to terms with the cruelty of other human beings is just as disturbing as seeing him forced to fight for his life.

Though gruelling in places, Knuckleball is a thriller in the truest sense. A pared-down ending leaves many questions to be asked, adding to its emotional impact. Peterson understands that one doesn't need a complicated plot to keep on finding unpredictable things in human nature.

Reviewed on: 22 Jul 2018
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A boy is sent to stay with his grandfather out on a farm, but runs into trouble with a creepy neighbour.

Director: Michael Peterson

Writer: Kevin Cockle, Michael Peterson

Starring: Luca Villacis, Munro Chambers, Michael Ironside, Kathleen Munroe

Year: 2018

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: Canada


Fantasia 2018

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