Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lovely Molly (Eduardo Sanchez, 2011)

Back in 1999, there was this little film that came along and added an entirely new dimension to cinema. It gave film makers a new tool with which to tell whatever story they chose, and it gave audiences a new cinematic touchstone. Eduardo Sanchez was one of the directors and primary creative minds behind what became the most profitable independent film of all time, The Blair Witch Project. For all of the hemming and hawing about the found footage genre in the film press, it can't be argued that the existence of the genre is due to The Blair Witch Project. It was behemoth, with a sly, fun and interesting viral and completely unusual marketing scheme that added to the experience of the film and helped build a buzz that made it a sign of things to come. If you were under 30 when it was released (or just a horror geek, no matter your age), it was the film you were talking about prior to and following it's release. Paranormal Activity learned everything it knew from The Blair Witch Project and then did what Blair Witch failed to do, provide sequels that were financially successful and added successfully added to the series mythology.

At the time, Sanchez and his co-creator/director Daniel Myrick were suddenly the hottest new names in horror. Unfortunately, neither of them have replicated anything like the success of that first feature, and they have more or less fallen off the cultural radar. Marketing departments still rely on the name The Blair Witch Project when either man releases a new film, but they just don't have the power they did previously. No one is clamoring to see the next film from either man, and really, The Blair Witch Project is almost considered a piece of kitsch from a bygone era.

Lovely Molly, the latest film from Sanchez, has helped to start bringing some of that prominence back for the writer/director. It was received relatively well on the festival circuit and the internet horror film press were certainly giving it plenty of copy preceding it's release, something Sanchez films since Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 haven't had the good fortune to receive. Lovely Molly unfortunately slid by with very little notice from the general movie going public, and that may be good or bad depending on your perspective. I was expecting a pretty standard haunted house/possession film, but what I got was completely different.
It's an effective film, with an excellent performance by it's lead, Gretchen Lodge. It's creepy, unsettling, and downright disturbing, but not in the usual horror film sense. Like Compliance, the last film I wrote about, it's taking it's cues from an entirely different area than those those horror fans are used when a film is described as "disturbing" or "unsettling." The cinematography is quite good, the script is believable, with characters and their relationships to each that are generally believable (something we've come to find as unique in most of todays horror films). I'm going to get through the things about the film I found effective and that are generally good, and then I'm going to do a section that will contain some spoilers that will get into what I find somewhat troubling about the film and why I have reservations about necessarily recommending it.

The film follows Molly, as she and her new husband hare just moved into her childhood home. It begins with video footage giving us what is essentially the set up. We see Molly get married and then see the new couple moving into the house, and get a few very small hints at some of the elements that come into play later in the film. The story really gets rolling when Molly and her husband are awakened by their security system going off in the middle of the night. It's a well executed scene, and once the police arrive, we pick up a few more essential pieces of information. They've been in the house for three months, her husband is a truck driver so he's gone for long stretches at a time. From there, the film becomes both an effective haunted house story and a disturbing possession tale or (depending on your perspective) it could also just be about the deterioration of Molly's mental and emotional health. 

Gretchen Lodge is great in Lovely Molly. That's really all there is to say about it. She delivers a great performance, working with what had to have been a pretty demanding and hard character to portray. From the beginning of the film to the end, Molly goes through so many different emotional states that Lodge manages to make not just completely believable, but also gives the audience every possible reason to want to root for her character and really hope that all is going to end well for Molly. No matter what particular state of mind Molly might be in, Lodge succeeds at making her interesting as well. There's something really, deeply organic to her performance here that we don't often get to see in a genre as stylized as horror often is. There are relatively long scenes with Lodge on screen all alone, and she was able to hold my attention every second. On top of all of that, she's fearless. There are some scenes in this film that most young women would baulk at, but her ability to bring a real sense of depth and human pathos to the character in the many different states she goes through over shadow the things conventional starlets might find problematic. There are a few instances where the physicality of her performance also add an entirely new depth to the scene. I'm hoping to see her start showing up more frequently and beginning to get more work. If she gets the chance, she has the potential to be a really interesting actor. If I were directing a film that needed a believable and compelling young female lead, I'd want Gretchen Lodge. This is an awesome, awesome performance that's unfortunately been overlooked so far.

The cinematography (by John Rutland) is really effective as well. Combined with the colors chosen for the film and the different environments it follows Molly through, it does a really great job of beginning with a degree of casual, comfortable warmth and then very slowly depicting a much more menacing environment. There is definitely a stylish feel to the entire visual presentation of the film, and it does a great job of finding ways use the combination of camera and design to consistently make sure, in subtle ways, what state of mind Molly is currently in. Even though it doesn't have the standard variety of grand vistas or expensive special effects, it manages to take a very plain environment and give it a great look. Especially when considering the fact that it was made for around a million dollars, I really love the way the film looks.

One of the other elements that makes Lovely Molly effective is its sound design. Eduardo Sanchez and his sound department have done a great job coming up with a set of sounds, a motif if you'll allow me to be slightly pretentious for a moment, that isn't quite like what we're used to hearing as part of a haunted house type of film, but that works well in communicating to the audience what has to be. There are scenes in the film that really succeed in being creepy and unnerving in the way only the best haunted house films really can, and the sound design plays a big part in that. It's inventive, works really well and is communicated coherently enough that the audience/viewer starts to understand that certain sounds should be identified with Molly's sense of an otherworldly presence being in the house.

All in all, Eduardo Sanchez has crafted and presents an effective horror film. There's a pervasive sense of dread throughout the last two thirds of the film, he finds new ways to use what have become otherwise tired tropes and he's managed to find a lead for his film that has supernova potential and helps to elevate the film to being something more than your standard haunted house film. In so far as the mechanics of making an effective film, they're all there. Lovely Molly works well. It's creepy, occasionally frightening, and in some ways, deeply disturbing. As a writer/director he deserves credit for that, and now that I've seen this, I'll be looking forward to his other work in the future.

What I don't like about the film comes down to the way he presents a certain aspect of the story. It's just something that I'm not sure sits right with me. I'm going to have to get into relatively significant spoilers, so I'm giving anyone who has desire to do so a way out. If you're not continuing on with this review, and do plan to see the film, I would warn that anyone who has a history of trauma or sexual violence may find this film particularly disturbing.

Spoilers Following! You've been warned!

My issues with Lovely Molly have nothing to do with the way the film is constructed. In that sense, it's a well done effort by a director whose shown some promise in the past and might be hitting his stride now that he's a bit older. The issue that I have with Lovely Molly has more to do with the way it portrays the element of of its story concerning Molly's history of sexual abuse.

It's not even that it doesn't make sense given the knowable facts about people who survive sexual abuse as small children. They are among the most likely to develop a history of serious substance abuse. They're among the most likely to experience dissociative episodes and are also among the most likely to develop dissociative identity disorder (what is now the clinical name for what is known as "multiple personality disorder" in the mass consciousness). Anyone watching the film who doesn't necessarily subscribe to the perspective that Molly is actually being haunted and possessed could very easily see all of these things in film, and that isn't a completely "out of left field" interpretation of the film. In some ways, Molly very well represents the kind of destruction that childhood sexual abuse wreaks in people's lives. There's one very particular thing that is problematic though.

By a large majority, girls or women who experience sexual abuse as children do not exhibit extremely violent behavior toward others later in life. They are much more likely to both be the victims of violence by others and to inflict violence against themselves in certain ways. People who have been abused, male or female, are more likely to be perceived as "over reacting" in cases of self defense, but I've always more or less believed that you shouldn't act in a way that causes others to have to defend themselves, because you never know exactly what history they have with violence, and you never know what kind of response you're going to get. They're also more likely to perceive a situation as needing them to react in some degree of their own defense than people who've never been abused. For someone with a history of that kind of abuse in their past, the experience of encountering a person who is unusually aggressive, be it physically, emotionally or psychologically, is going to be perceived and experienced in a way that is of a magnitude beyond that which people who haven't been abused can actually begin to even understand. If you're kind of jack ass that's getting too grabby with a young woman who has made it clear she's not interested, and she lashes out in a way that many observers would call an over reaction, you got what you deserved because you're a bully, and she's experienced just what that kind of bullying can lead to. It's actually a sensible way to react for people who've had that experience. The same can be said for men. If you're being overly aggressive in your desire to look like a tough guy at the bar, and you're attempting to force another guy to back down by being physically threatening and insulting, if that person has experienced sexual abuse, you might just end up with someone on your hands who isn't fighting with you to defend their pride. They're perceiving it as defending their lives, their sanity, and the sanctity of their ability to make decisions about what happens with their own body, so you'd better make sure that's what your signing up for the next time you decide it's time to play the alpha male card. If you're the kind of jack ass who is going to put another person in that situation, my feeling is that you get exactly what you deserve. The degree to which that any of that kind of behavior is accepted and almost expected is just plain stupid in the first place.

All of that being said, portraying Molly as possibly suffering from psychological deterioration that results in the violence she commits is a dangerous line to walk. Sure, it's not unheard of for people with dissociative disorder to have a history of violent behavior, but the percentage of people who experience dissociative disorder is so incredibly miniscule that there are even doubts in the psychology community about whether or not it's actually a disorder or if it's a combination of symptoms from other disorders.

It wouldn't be such a problem if the rest of the portrayal wasn't as well done as it is. If Sanchez had decided to just take as much of the dramatic license as he could in creating the character, I'd actually have been more comfortable suggesting this film to people. It wouldn't have been a matter of portraying anything that was at all realistic, and therefore, wouldn't be putting itself in the kind of position that it's almost providing a kind of excuse for bias against people suffering from the varieties of emotional and mental illness that often results from childhood sexual abuse. It would just have been another fantastic reality presented in a horror film, a genre that is perfectly at ease with fantastic realities.

And that's really where the heart of my ambivalence lies. It's a well made film that for the first two thirds does a really good job of presenting an incredibly empathetic and understanding portrayal of someone whose emotional and psychological well being has been damaged as the result of being sexually abused by a parent. It's extremely effective in the way it makes the weight of that felt without ever really crossing over into the territory of being exploitation. It's also great in the way it portrays the honest confusion of the people who love the person who's gone through it. All of that has a real solid degree of emotional honesty to it, and makes it a much harder film to watch than I was initially expecting. The last third makes sense within the logic of the film and the story, but it veers away from the actual reality it had been doing such a great job of portraying and where it goes works in the narrative sense, but is dangerous in relation to the real life situations it had previously been so good at portraying. It never devolves into cheap melodrama either, which is to it's credit and it's heart wrenching all the same, but it just leads to a conclusion that isn't really very good for the subject matter it's attempting to address. Given the degree of emotional honesty in the first two thirds of the film, it doesn't seem Eduardó Sanchez just set out to make a fright film, but that there was some degree of interest in getting this part of it right, which is what makes the film interesting and different and also makes the last third of the film hard for me to endorse.

There's another part of this that adds something interesting to the discussion. Lovely Molly was originally entitled Possession, which to my mind, puts an entirely different spin on the film from the get go. Considering that a title actually begins to tell the audience what to think of and how to interpret a film, making the first contact with the audience be a direct reference to this being a film about possession changes the way it's understood. Even more interestingly, the film does relate to the word "possession" in both of the ways in which it can be understood. "Possession" as it relates to what is normally understood in cinema terms is the spiritual variety of an entity taking over an individuals body. That relates pretty directly to sexual abuse, as does the understanding of the word "possession" which infers ownership, or to have agency over something or someone, and in that light, I think it changes a lot of the understanding of the film and where it goes. By changing the name to Lovely Molly, the distributor and financiers have removed the added connotation that comes with the name. It relates to the story, either way it's taken, and adds a dimension to the film that isn't there by calling it Lovely Molly. Either way one chooses to look at the story, Molly's father has taken possession of her. If you take the perspective that she is possessed in the sense of her father's spirit possessing her body, it still doesn't change anything. If you take the perspective that it was her father's taking possession of her body in a literal way, as in sexually abusing her as a child, and that has resulted in the fracturing of her psyche that the ending of the film suggests in that reading, that's still a bit more acceptable to me because it tends to place the responsibility more squarely on her father. Without that the inferences made by the original title, it leaves too much of the responsibility on Molly, when that interpretation has to mean that she literally can't be responsible for her own actions because she's not psychologically present or able to understand the reality surrounding her. Changing the name of the film essentially makes it more about what Molly does, instead of it being a metaphor about the horrific effects of childhood sexual abuse, which is what it seems to really want to be.

Lovely Molly or Possession, as it was originally named, is an interesting film in that way. It does present a gripping and horrifying metaphor for the effects of childhood sexual abuse on a persons psyche, long after the abuse has ended and even after the assailant is dead. Haunted, is a word often used in relation to people who survive it, and there might not be a better film to give a visceral understanding of what that means and the kind of terror people can experience years after. It's not a pleasant experience or a pleasant film, and like Compliance, it shouldn't be. It may be one of the few ways someone who hasn't experienced it may be able to begin to get the slightest idea of what that experience is though, and in that way, it's a courageous film. Unlike Compliance, I can say it's a film that is well constructed, but because of the way it treats it's subject matter, is a film that probably should be seen by the fewest number of people possible.

If you're interested in seeing Lovely Molly, there is a link to the Blu-Ray further down this page. If DVD or streaming video are more to your liking, you can find them in my Amazon store. The latest recommendations are always on the last page. 

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