Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Stopmotion is not a film that strives to keep secrets or deliver surprises. It wants us to understand what’s happening, at least to an extent, and still be helpless to prevent it."

There are few forms of artistry quite as taxing as stop motion animation. Making tiny adjustments one after another, it can take days to complete just a minute of film. incredible patience and obsessive attention to detail are required. What’s more, it’s practically impossible to finance these days, unless you’re already considered a genius, deserving of support purely for the sake of the creation itself. Ella’s mother (Stella Gonet) has such a reputation, but due to arthritis in her hands, she can no longer do the physical side of the work herself. Ella (Aisling Franciosi) – whom she calls poppet – does that for her, serving as her puppet. But what happens to the puppet when there’s no-one left to pull the strings?

When her mother is hospitalised in what is clearly an end of life situation, Ella is distraught. She can still recognise, however, that this could be an opportunity for her to begin pursuing her own creative ambitions. Supportive boyfriend Tom (Tom York) sets her up with a studio where she quickly gets to work. At first the plan is for her to complete her mother’s final film, but an encounter with a young girl who inveigles her way into the space sets her on a different path. It’s the story of a girl, says the child. She’s lost in a forest, and someone is after her.

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Viewers will be quick to note the similarity in appearance between the young visitor and Ella herself. Stopmotion is not a film that strives to keep secrets or deliver surprises. It wants us to understand what’s happening, at least to an extent, and still be helpless to prevent it. Its opening features Ella in a nightclub, lit by softly strobing coloured lights. Her face hardly moves and yet she seems animated, given the illusion of life like one of her mother’s models. Later we will see her once again under such lights, at Tom’s sister’s party, where, under the influence, she shifts between poses like a mechanical thing, with long periods of stillness, as if waiting for direction.

The story about the girl in the forest has the quality of a folk tale. We can sense the end it is moving towards. At night, Ella hears an ominous knocking at her door. Outside the building, she finds herself surrounded by mist and trees. What does a girl who is lost want? To get back to her mother? Recognising that something is seriously amiss, Tom and his sister try to intervene. They inhabit clean, brightly lit spaces, talk in an upbeat way, discuss day to day aspects of life in ways that speak to the existence of the wider world. Ella wants to stay inside, in a studio which is getting darker and darker, focused on the small, using macabre tools in an effort to stave off reality.

Franciosi is stunning as always, completely absorbed in her character. The film needs this quality of performance, but also benefits from Ben Baird’s superior sound design, more powerful in the dark. As Ella pours herself into her work, she is also fleeing from a fear of her own inability to create, to find a story that is truly hers. The sound reflects the artist’s fear of the blank canvas, the writer’s of the empty page. The stillness surrounding Ella leaves her with nowhere to go but inside, and director Robert Morgan beckons us to follow.

Reviewed on: 22 Feb 2024
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About a stop-motion animator struggling to control her demons after the loss of her overbearing mother.

Director: Robert Morgan

Writer: Robin King, Robert Morgan

Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Tom York, Caoilinn Springall, Joshua J Parker

Year: 2023

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: UK

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