Fantasia 2019 Review: DARLIN', An Effervescent, Entertaining Exercise in Empowerment
There is a story told between teen girls, midway through Darlin', about survival. How do you deal with the constricting snake trying to consume you in the forest? You let yourself get partially eaten, and kick the shit out of it from the inside.
In this day and age of smashing the patriarchy 24/7 with righteous anger and furious vengeance, it is important to stop and have a little fun. Pollyanna McIntosh's directorial debut certainly has its fair share of disturbing gore and violence, not to mention a few things to say about how an innocent brain might be affected by religious catechism. It has a half dozen or so fairly brutal murders. But it also finds time for a retro cutesy ‘cleaning montage,’ or to watch a lady bug slowly climb along white stucco.
I found Lucky McKee's The Woman, in spite of its memorably central performance, to be unbearably sour. Leaning too far into the misogyny it was attempting to satirize, you could almost feel the basic lust for genre trappings sit uncomfortably in the shadow of what the film was ostensibly trying to grabble with. At the end of that film, there was a post credit sequence that hinted of a more whimsical follow-on involving the little girl, Darlin’, who is adopted/stolen by the feral creature, along with her older sister Peggy.
I recall speculating at the time, that The Woman might have worked better if it were written and directed by a woman, and, here we are years later, where Andrew van den Houten, Lucky McKee and the late Jack Ketchum (the author of 2009’s Offspring where this tribe of cannibals living on the fringes of American civilization’ trilogy began) have handed the reins over to McIntosh to write and direct a sequel.
Darlin’ opens with the feral woman bringing her feral daughter to a hospital on the edge of a snowy forest. There is a lovely sequence, achieved with time lapse photography, where mushrooms (slightly phallic) spring up from their forest footprints. When the young girl is accidentally struck by an incoming ambulance she is more surprised than hurt by the collision.
Cared for by a kindly male nurse, whose efforts to clip her nails and clean her up are done with genuine intimacy and care, she is transformed from a peat-skinned, tangled mess of stained hair and teeth to a porcelain young thing with strikingly red tresses. She remains the caged beast, a handful, prompting the head doctor to keep her sedated until they can figure out what to do with her.
It is not long before the hospital, which is funded with Catholic money, turns the (relatively) cleaned up Darlin over to the Catholic orphanage on the edge of town to get rid of her. This happens so fast that her mother, off looking to provide fresh human flesh harvested from a homeless man, fails to see where her daughter was taken. After casually murdering a few hospital employees, including the resident candy striping clown, The Woman sets out to find her daughter.
In the meantime, a comically corrupt priest sees her redemption and civilization at the mercy of Christ as a godsend to increase his profile and funding from the Catholic bureaucracy, by making her a media, ahem, darling. The nuns set out to teach her English, and scripture. They dress her in khaki pleats and a pastel blouse, and drop her in with the rest of the orphaned girls to learn about original sin, how the devil is always trying to find a way inside, and a woman’s burden to endure hard labour in child birth.
The only surgery I have had was having my wisdom teeth removed, I cannot begin to imagine the fear and anxieties around having another living thing exit my body, and Darlin’ layers on the religious elements in interesting ways, making this a vicarious experience in the biological and spiritual anxieties of motherhood.
Centuries of social control in most cultures on earth of a woman’s body has equated cleanliness next to godliness. While sticking the with the ‘subdue the wild woman’ frame work of The Woman, it takes a radically, refreshingly, different approach and tone. There is a moment in confession where Darlin' has to reckon with her own cannibalism as handed down from her mother, it is tender and complex, and unresolved, because how could you? You are the product of your upbringing, change is possible, but it is also frightening. Darlin' has the good sense to grabble with such things in interesting ways.
The film is a provocative feminist gumbo made from ingredients of classic tales such as Tarzan and King Kong, with a fiery red-haired dash of Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Lauryn Canny ably walks the balance between wildebeest and chaste catholic-in-training on the verge of first communion. She has an interesting visage, and a plethora of body language tricks up her sleeve. She is supported by a dimensional set of girls in the orphanage that tread the line between performative devotion, and rebellious weed smoking and mix tapes, while still feeling the the institutionally adrift loneness of ‘being unwanted.’
In the meantime, the Woman hooks up with the unwanted adult equivalents, homeless women living on the fringe in a kind of commune, to pull off a jailbreak from social conventions, and that is a hoot to boot. But do not let the surface tomfoolery and shenanigans blind you to the fact that there many interesting ideas and themes percolating throughout Darlin’. The female cast and director are more than willing to chew on them.