'Darlin'': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of SXSW
A daring horror-meets-coming-of-age film that doesn’t always jell.

The stand-alone sequel to Lucky McKee's 'The Woman' is a horror-infused coming-of-age tale from first-time writer-director Pollyanna McIntosh.

In Darlin’, the directorial debut of actor and writer Pollyanna McIntosh, slasher horror meets coming-of-age story. The stand-alone sequel to Lucky McKee’s cult classic The Woman, Darlin’ takes the feral nature-dwelling titular character from that film (played with a noticeable familiarity by McIntosh) and gives her a young protege named Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny), who is just as feral but not quite as far gone. The movie opens with The Woman dropping Darlin’ off at a hospital. From there, McIntosh wants the audience to lean into figuring out what exactly has compelled them to leave their preferred domain in the wild for the unpredictable city.

The film is clearly aware that it carries the weight of the conversations around its predecessor, whose claims to be a “feminist film” were met with controversy when McKee premiered it at Sundance in 2011. McIntosh knows that her film has to carry forward some of the threads from its cinematic forbearer, as the two movies will inevitably be compared with one another, but she also takes care to distinguish her work as something new. The something new appears to be mashing up the social horror genre with the coming-of-age tale under the strong influence of a decidedly female gaze.

With the exception of the male nurse (an endearing performance from Cooper Andrews) who helps Darlin’ find her way to the group home for girls, the villains are mostly male and the heroes, albeit highly flawed, are the women. The church and its questionable male bishop (creepily played by Bryan Batt) is suspect and holds a tight grip over the nuns and the group of foster girls in his care throughout the film.

The first half of the movie unfolds like a hard-core slasher film with lots of gruesome bloody kills in nearly every other scene. McIntosh holds her own in this second go-round as The Woman, a cold-blooded wild animal who slits throats for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The coming-of-age part of the movie, markedly different in tone, doesn’t really take hold until the second half as we see Darlin’s physical and psychological transition to a “normal” girl. The effect is jarring as it feels like two different movies plopped together rather than one movie led by its titular character. 

While the film is named for Darlin’ it still feels very much like The Woman is the character who fully possesses the movie: She’s the one driving most of what happens in the film and the one who delivers the big comeuppance in the final sequence. Even in the scenes that focus on Darlin’, The Woman — both the threat she represents and her actual presence — lurks chillingly in the background, drawing our attention away from Darlin'’s plight. We know that The Woman survives and is set up for presumably the next film in what could become a franchise, but we’re not sure about Darlin'’s fate. That Darlin’ is all about The Woman results in a film that ultimately feels static and unresolved. We’re not sure if we should pity Darlin’ or be relieved that she’s now on her way to becoming her own person, but we always know we’re supposed to revere (and be afraid of) The Woman.

The film is ambitious in the sheer number of things it attempts to do. It's mixing genres. It's taking on the social wing of horror (popularized by Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit Get Out) without giving up the guttural antics of a slasher film. It's exploring a girl’s psychological, sexual and spiritual awakening. It’s also asking questions about man versus nature and woman versus the self. It wants us to examine major institutions like the Catholic Church and the health-care system. It wants us to consider the varied and tenuous social positions of women: nuns, foster youth, abuse survivors, squatters who get by on the margins of society. Taking on this much is admirable, especially for a first feature existing under the weight of its cinematic predecessor; there just needed to be more attention played to cohesion in designing a film around all of these elements.

The result ends up being that Darlin’ is the kind of movie that hits you like a bus, and the whiplash you’re routinely recovering from throughout makes it hard to enjoy the ride.

Cast: Pollyanna McIntosh, Lauryn Canny, Bryan Batt, Nora-Jane Noone, Cooper Andrews
Writer-director: Pollyanna McIntosh
Executive producers: Jack Ketchum, Lucky McKee
Producer: Andrew van den Houten
Director of photography: Halyna Hutchins
Editor: Julie Garces
Production designer: Jeff Subik
Costume designer: Michael Bevins
Distribution: MPI Media Group
Venue: SXSW (Narrative Feature Competition)

100 minutes