'Cub' ('Welp'): Toronto Review
The debut feature of Flemish filmmaker Jonas Govaerts takes a group of cub scouts into the booby-trapped woods
A Belgian boy scout with a small stature but big imagination starts seeing things in the dark undergrowth when out in the woods with his peers in Cub (Welp), the horror-tinged feature debut of Flemish director Jonas Govaerts. This unquestionably good-looking film, shot by world-class cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (The Drop, Bullhead), plays like a Low Countries-variation on the classy Spanish-language work of Guillermo Del Toro, at least in terms of style if not substance, with what little narrative there is more of a clothesline for small-scale set pieces rather than a conduit for character insight. Outside of Flanders, where the relative novelty of a horror film in the local dialect may provide a draw for audiences, this will be mostly confined to fantastic fests and genre specialists.
Sam (Maurice Luijten) is an impressionable 12-year-old who’s sent on a summer camp-type outing with his fellow cub scouts and their three leaders, all in their twenties: the always-up-for-mischief Baloo (Stef Aerts, from the breathtaking Oxygen), the kind-hearted but too permissive Akela (Titus De Voogdt, Steve + Sky) and their slightly more reasonable cook Jasmijn (Evelien Bosmans, Marina), who’s also the object of the boys’ obvious affection.
The sunny and funny early going follows the characters as they prep for their departure and shows how the three adults, though especially Baloo, enjoy wielding their almost absolute power over the kids, or at least their minds. To make the story they tell about Kai, a creature that’s "half boy, half werewolf," even more scary, they suggest that Kai not only roams the very woods where they’ll go camping but that earlier that year a couple vanished in the same forest, no-doubt wolfed down by Kai. The gullible Sam is of course impressed — in a negative sense.
Things grow progressively darker and more dramatic from there. When the Dutch-language group arrives at their destination in the Ardennes region, they find that two loud youths from the nearby Francophone village have laid claim to their campsite, forcing them deeper into the woods. A comically plump officer, tellingly called Franju (character actor Jean-Michel Balthazar, a Dardenne brothers regular), reaches them on a too-small police scooter and is OK with the scouts moving further into the forest, even if he warns of the fact that it’s haunted by the ghosts of several laid-off employees of a bus factory, who hanged themselves there.
Things start to really heat up at night, when a feral boy (Gill Eeckelaert) with a black mask made of bark shows up at the encampment, Sam sees him and not much later discovers his hiding place in a tall tree. However, since he's known to tell tall tales, no one wants to believe the outcast when he says he’s seen "Kai." From there on, the film practically does away with logic altogether, as characters start being chased around the woods, elaborate booby-traps are put to good use and several characters (spoiler?) die violent deaths. It’s not that these events aren’t imaginatively staged, but rather that they feel entirely perfunctory because they don’t seem connected to what little Govaerts has set up in terms of plot.
The fired-employees angle could potentially imbue the material with a topical note, but isn’t explored further — apart, perhaps, from the fact the adult bad guy (Jan Hammenecker) that Kai hangs out with (the precise nature of their relationship is also unclear) has set up his booby-trap command center in and underneath a collection of old vehicles. It never becomes clear whether the man’s a disgruntled ghost, crazy former factory worker or just some sicko who loves elaborate setups (production designer Geert Paredis clearly had a ball) in a part of the woods that barely anyone ever frequents.
Though little Luijten has an impressive screen presence and manages to say a lot with very little dialogue, the screenplay, co-written by the director and Roel Mondelaers, finally doesn’t exploit Sam’s gullibility enough, with the film barely using the potential doubt over Sam’s claims he’s seen Kai as a source of dramatic tension or as a way to build character. Indeed, unlike Del Toro’s best stories with child protagonists, such as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, there’s hardly a sense of character at all, with Sam’s imagination not saving him, nor offering a kind of escape or putting him in potentially more peril than his peers, since all the attacks feel random and without motivation. Also somewhat oddly, the film’s point of view isn’t all that close to Sam, even though the singular title seems to suggest he’s the protagonist. There’s no real sense of an accelerated coming of age or a disturbing loss of innocence because Sam’s unwillingly confronted with evil, or even the impression that he gets any satisfaction out of having been the only one to intuit what was coming.
Another missed opportunity is the lack of pointed observations on the country’s subsisting Flemish/Walloon tensions, which should clearly be possible in a story about Dutch-speaking northerners finding themselves assaulted in the French-speaking South of their country. Cub was actually shot in Flanders so why pass it off as Wallonia at all, unless Govaerts doesn't have anything more intelligent to say than all his French-speaking compatriots are either buffoons or psychopaths? Indeed, like in the recent Flemish Oscar nominee Bullhead, all Walloons are caricatures, which precludes any kind of even semi-intelligent commentary on their (perceived) similarities or differences with the Flemish.
The film’s second half gets pretty violent and gory, recalling at several points the French-language Ardennes horror of fellow Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz (The Ordeal, Hallelujah), with both filmmakers clearly capable of milking their limited resources for maximum genre chills — though in Govaerts’s case, the absence of any character or character arc worth caring for makes his film much more disposable.
Production companies: Potemkino, Submarine
Cast: Maurice Luijten, Titus De Voogdt, Stef Aertsen, Evelien Bosmans, Jan Hammenecker, Gill Eeckelaert, Jean-Michel Balthazar
Screenplay: Jonas Govaerts, Roel Mondelaers
Producer: Peter De Maegd
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Geert Paredis
Costume designer: Margerita Sanders
Editor: Maarten Janssens
Music: Steve Moore
No rating, 83 minutes