Fantastic Fest 2013 Review: PROXY Dwells On The Dark Side Of Parenting
Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome is a relatively rare form of child abuse that involves the exaggeration or fabrication of illnesses or symptoms by a primary caregiver. The central idea around which everything swirls in Zack Parker's Proxy is as brilliant as it is dark, exaggerating a real medical condition in a similar fashion to what David Cronenberg did with the hysteria and outcry when soft core skin flicks were shown on local TV stations - the result was Videodrome - or how Paul Solet examined in Grace how newborn children sapping their mothers resources, and bring about an anxious protectiveness. The best horror movies exaggerate the anxieties of our times, and for that Proxy has illustrated how the egos and minds of new parents (or parents to be) can be flush with the kind of endorphins akin to a junkies high.
The ideas and narrative style of the film have a rare quality that make it very difficult to ever deduce what is going to happen next. As someone who sees far too many movies, most of which follow along the usual formulae, I am grateful to not know exactly what is going to happen next. However, many of the direction choices and some of the acting mar what is otherwise something great.
Esther (Alexia Rasmussen channelling Angela Bettis in May) is viciously victimized during the ninth month of her pregnancy. Through the help of her doctors and support workers during her recovery, she is encouraged to continue to receive support at a group for parents in grieving where she meets Melanie, a grieving mom who lost her husband and small child in an accident. The two women seem to be happily taking advantage of what these support groups have to offer, an unguarded venue for sympathy and strength. Until a little bit of unspoken advice from Fight Club kicks in: Beware the dangers of being a tourist of support groups."
When the first 'bottom' drops of what is really going on in Proxy occurs and shakes it from 'sad indie' mode and into something entirely else, that is -- if the film hasn't lost you -- then that tiny thrill shudders down your spine at the possibilities of where things will go. Shifting narrator perspectives as the film progresses, without ever repeating a scene, is also quite invigorating as is an homage to Kubrick's The Shining where the camera is right below a character looking upwards as they struggle with themselves and stare downwards. I am surprised that more filmmakers don't copy that shot, it's shockingly effective at showing a characters mental break as it does for Jack Nicholson, and does here.
The issue I take with the film, something that is absent from its early moments of violence, is that later on the film seems to revel in it in a cheap fashion. Some slow motion photography later in the film is so ludicrously ineffective, it inspires laughter, and breaks the spell that Parker had been fashioning with his characters all along. It is the act of cheap horror-schlock, something of which Proxy for its runtime up until that point is looking to sidestep. Also, a tattoo artist and a lady cop with minor scenes in the film are so utterly terrible in their line deliveries, that it further undermines things. Joe Swanberg has a significant part in late the film. While his acting is not exactly terrible, there is something decidedly off about it, maybe because he is the only male in a movie driven by action oriented but absolutely nutter females. A lesbian girlfriend is quite empowered and competent , but also shown masturbating for no discernible reason other than cheap thrills. Zack and his co-writer Kevin Donner were stay-at-home dads when they wrote the film and often things seems to be an unholy mixture of observation and flat out fantasy.
Gripes and disappointments in execution aside, the concept and narrative strategy are too compelling to let these and a slightly too-long-run time get in the way of what is a unique little indie horror picture. We simply do not get enough of these, and I am happy to accept what is coming to me. Going for sympathy and attention of those around you by exploiting your children, and getting off on it, seems to be a post-millennium malaise. Even if the parents who are guilty of this (in a less exaggerated way as portrayed in the film) were to find this film, they are unlikely to see the forest for the trees due to some of the directorial decisions, and that is a darn shame, so what we are left with is hoping for a remake that can iron out some of the indulgent kinks.