Spiral

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Spiral
"Bowyer-Chapman is superb." | Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

Sitting in the living room on their first night in their new home, Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) is talking to step-daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte) about men. She's at an age where hearing about others' mistakes might help her to avoid her own. Men are mostly pretty awful really, he says, except for her dad - and Aaron (Ari Cohen) smiles contentedly. They've been together for a long time now; things feel easy between them. But has their relationship ever really faced much stress?

Life out here in the small town by the lake is supposed to be simpler and easier - better for Kayla, whom they both worry about in the city where it feels like anything could happen. A brief opening scene which echoes that of David Fincher's Zodiac hints at an underlying trauma in Malik's past. But is this new place safe? Malik quickly picks up on homophobic and racist dogwhistles, and there are less subtle occurrences which make him understandably uncomfortable. Aaron, who has presumably helped him through PTSD, is quick to dismiss all this. The world isn't like that anymore, he says. Well, maybe it doesn't look that way to a middle class white man.

One of those films that just couldn't have been made before cinema made room for gay characters beyond the fringes, Spiral takes the tradition of gaslighting and disbelief to which female characters in dangerous circumstances have been subjected for years and turns it on a man, who is made vulnerable by his race in ways that just don't occur to Aaron. It's complicated by the fact that Malik has had paranoid episodes in the past and can't fully trust his own senses (there is perhaps a subtle comment here about the disproportionate diagnosis of schizophrenia in African-American men). Bowyer-Chapman is superb, making us feel for him even when we really can't tell what's real, showing us an intelligent man doing his best to remain rational in a crazy situation. His performance really elevates the film and makes it worthy of attention whether or not you ordinarily take an interest in genre work.

Whilst some other aspects of the film feel formulaic, Malik's predicament makes it difficult to draw easy conclusions. There's some interesting work around Kayla's coming of age that feels fresh and different disturbing with the familiar shadow of paternal sexual proprietorship taken out of the equation. Laporte does a good job of communicating vulnerability without diminishing our sense of her character's agency. She's facing her own challenges and the fact that these are glimpsed only obliquely, with neither parent able to give her as much attention as she needs, makes her situation all the more poignant.

An intelligent, socially astute film that invites more privileged viewers to question how much they might be missing in the world around them, Spiral is at its best when exploring the power imbalances in relationships and all the little ways in which people fail to listen to each other. it explores themes around communication on multiple levels and urges its audience to pay attention.

Reviewed on: 14 Sep 2020
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Spiral packshot
A same-sex couple move to a small town so they can enjoy a better quality of life and raise their 16-year-old daughter with the best social values. But nothing is as it seems in their picturesque neighbourhood, and when Malik sees the folks next door throwing a very strange party, something has got to give.

Director: Kurtis David Harder

Writer: Colin Minihan, John Poliquin

Starring: Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Lochlyn Munro, Ari Cohen, Chandra West

Year: 2019

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Canada


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