Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Both Maturo and Manning are superb in this film, and it’s the chemistry between them that really makes it." | Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

“You understand why we have to do this,” says Tom, hitting his little brother in the face.

Tom (Mike Manning) has been legally responsible for Lucas (August Maturo) ever since the death of their parents. Deprived of his family and future in one fell swoop, he works in a manual job, drinks in the local bar and tries to suppress his rage and grief so that he can provide the care the kid needs. Naturally, Lucas is also traumatised and would be a handful even for an experienced adult. He disappears for hours on end, he refuses to listen, he smashes things up and he engages in strange rituals, longing to reconnect with his mother somehow. So Tom, not knowing what else to do, hits him in the face, and Lucas hits back, and each uses an open hand and Tom never uses his full strength, but still, he’s doing damage – and not just in the form of bruising.

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Like a lot of troubled kids, Lucas is seen as target for abuse more generally. Local twins Donna and Rose (Bianca and Chiara D’Ambrosio) delight in tormenting him. Their friend Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) is less certain. There’s something about Lucas that she likes, and there may even be a possibility of romance there – if he will let her get close. But early on in this story, Lucas finds another friend, a shadowy figure which lurks in the basement of an old, abandoned building in the woods. And a boy’s best friend is his monster.

Adapted from his 2018 short of the same name, Jeremiah Kipp’s film has the magic of a kids’ Spielberg movie but is going somewhere very, very different. Lucas’ sinister new friend doesn’t speak, but that’s fine when all he really wants is somebody to listen and give him a hug. They have fun hanging out together in the ruined building and among the trees. But when the monster starts coming to his house, a line is crossed. He doesn’t want his brother involved – or Anna (Libe Barer), his brother’s new girlfriend, who worries about him and wants to help but keeps coming and going because she can only take so much of Tom’s anger. He senses that something bad will happen if such an encounter takes place. But there’s a lot he doesn’t understand.

Both Maturo and Manning are superb in this film, and it’s the chemistry between them that really makes it. We can see how much they love each other even as we see how difficult it is for either of them to have a loving relationship of any kind at this time. Tom can go from being a terrifying bully (as it’s hinted that their father was too) to reminding us, as he reels back from it, that he’s not much more than a child himself. Lucas has an innocence which only makes him more vulnerable to drifting along a very dark path. Quite where the balance of what happens later lies, between the two of them, isn’t easy to pinpoint. There are multiple layers of ambiguity in the story, none of which make it any easier to stomach the awful suffering it entails.

Slapface screened as part of Frightfest 2021, and whilst horror films are sometimes dismissed as failing to deal with real world issues, that couldn’t be less true in this case. You won’t need to be a genre fan to appreciate it, but the form it takes may make it more accessible to some of the people who need to see it most. Kipp understands that form well and really makes it work for him. Although he didn’t have a huge budget to work with, production values are high, and he picks his shots to show us the world as a child might understand it, so we’re always aware of the size and power of adults and the vast, mysterious landscape of the forest. It’s a different kind of mystery, however, that ultimately emerges here, and you’ll be left feeling as if you’ve just been hit in the face yourself.

Reviewed on: 31 Aug 2021
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A boy deals with the loss of his mother by creating a dangerous relationship with a monster rumoured to live in the woods.
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Director: Jeremiah Kipp

Writer: Jeremiah Kipp

Starring: August Maturo, Mike Manning, Libe Barer, Mirabelle Lee, Bianca D'Ambrosio

Year: 2021

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: US

Streaming on: Shudder

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