The Hollow Child


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Hollow Child
"Good folk horror is a rare treat and here it's blended beautifully with the less-than-glamorous experience of modern teenage life."

Ever since humans came down from the trees, it seems, we have had a terror of going back there. Long after the extinction of most of the wolves and tigers and other large predators, and some 40,000 years since we wiped out the last of those more like ourselves, a primal terror of the forest remains. All around the world, children are warned of the sorts of things that might steal them away if they wander there alone: the chihuateteo of the Aztecs, the rusalka of Eastern Europe, the Portuguese duende, the cucuy of Latin America; Japanese tengu, Finnish peikko or Poland's bubak. They guard the edges of the permitted world, embodying our fear of the unknown and, perhaps, our guilt. The Hollow Child takes us to a small American town where, generation after generation, children have gone missing among the trees. But losing them isn't the worst of. What's worse is what comes back wearing their skin.

Samantha (Jessica McLeod) is a troubled teenager living with foster parents Liz (Jana Mitsoula) and Garrett (John Emmet Tracy). Though basically a sweet and well-intentioned girl, she's had a difficult past and finds it particularly hard to deal with responsibility, such as being asked to walk their biological daughter Olivia (Hannah Cheramy) home from school. If she needs a wake-up call it couldn't be more stark than Olivia going missing. But when the child returns three days later, Samantha grows increasingly convinced that something is wrong. In a precarious situation, with her place in the family always in jeopardy, she strives to get to the truth before it's too late.

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There's a lot going on here. To English-speaking viewers one of the most accessible myths will be that of the changeling, the faerie child substituted for a stolen human child the way a cuckoo substitutes its egg for one it has taken from a host nest. Adoptees often speak of feeling like changelings or cuckoo children, ill at ease in their new families where other children may perceive them as interlopers, so to be in that position and convinced, in turn, that the child everyone else thinks was there first is in fact an imposter is a doubly challenging prospect. Then there's imposter syndrome, a recognised psychiatric condition which causes the development of such beliefs; although it's not mentioned by name Liz, herself an adoptee and struggling to reconcile conflicted emotions, contends that Samantha must be going mad.

It's hard to resist even inadvertent gaslighting in such a situation. Sam's resilience and determination make her a strong heroine for teenagers just beginning to explore horror, though there are some very bloody scenes in the second half so this isn't suitable for younger ones. it also succeeds in being quite a bit scarier than many films in the genre. Where it is strongest, however, is as character-based drama. Sam is a much more interesting heroine because she isn't always likeable. She's pretty which makes people fall for her and she doesn't like the responsibility that brings, or the extent to which it might force her to think kindly of herself; she tends to exploit people and eschew real connection. He teenage friends are themselves clumsy and self-centred a lot of the time. Yet they're sympathetic, as are the frantic parents. McLeod handles the complexity of the central role with assurance and contributes to the film's haunting quality.

A confident, multi-layered film which makes highly effective use of simple cinematic techniques to forge a connection with the primal, The Hollow Child is a further sign that the growing Raven Banner brand is one worth looking out for. Good folk horror is a rare treat and here it's blended beautifully with the less-than-glamorous experience of modern teenage life. The result is an appealing take on an old story that will leave you watching warily when next you enter the woods and keeping your feet on the path.

Reviewed on: 31 Oct 2018
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The Hollow Child packshot
A troubled teenager tries to save her adoptive family and unravel the mystery of what's lurking in the local woods.
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Director: Jeremy Lutter

Writer: Ben Rollo

Starring: Jessica McLeod, Hannah Cheramy, John Emmet Tracy, Jana Miitsoula, Genevieve Buechner, Connor Stanhope, Johannah Newmarch

Year: 2017

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada


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