SXSW 2024 Review: THE MOOGAI, An Examination Of Indigenous Trauma Let Down By Flaccid Script

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SXSW 2024 Review: THE MOOGAI, An Examination Of Indigenous Trauma Let Down By Flaccid Script

An Aboriginal demon steps in for the real-life enduring trauma of Australia’s “Stolen Generations” in Jon Bell’s debut feature, The Moogai. Government sponsored assimilation programs ripped tens of thousands of Aboriginal children from their families to be placed with white families in Australia in the first half of the 20th century, leading to widespread decimation of cultural identities among the indigenous population. The Moogai substitutes a child-stealing demon for the government in what could have been a powerful examination of the tragedy and its lingering effects on Aboriginal people, but instead falls flat as it forgoes tension while ultimately spending too much effort saying the quiet part loud.

Sarah Bishop (Shari Sebbens) is a successful woman, an attorney on the brink of superstardom with her firm, she’s also very pregnant and due to give birth to her second child any day now. She’s recently reconnected with her birth mother, Ruth (Tara Rose), an Aboriginal woman with a traumatic past, but Sarah’s modern life is so different from Ruth’s that they can’t seem to connect. Though it’s not explicitly stated, Sarah’s separation from Ruth and placement with a white family doesn’t seem to have been the mother’s choice, and as a result there is tension between birth mother and child that spreads to every aspect of their fraught relationship.

When Sarah’s baby comes suddenly with a traumatic birth that sees her nearly die on the operating table, things in her seemingly perfect life start to fall apart, leading her to wonder if she’s going mad. She starts seeing things, first small apparitions that seem like they could simply be the result of exhaustion, but a recurring vision of a child with white eyes admonishing her to watch her children carefully because “he” is coming for them is what really sends her over the edge.

Thankfully, she has a very supportive and sweet husband, Fergus (Meyne Wyatt), who offers to help her get rest, but when that fails and the visions and Sarah’s seeming paranoia worsen, he has her institutionalized for fear that she’ll hurt the baby. It soon turns out that she was right, and from then on it is a battle to defeat the child stealing Moogai, and she’ll sacrifice anything for the safety of her children.

The Moogai is a film that is stuffed to the gills with messaging, some well executed, but more often than not it is ham-handedly shoved into the dialogue in ways that shouldn’t have passed muster by the time it got to the screen. Director Bell has a lot of balls in the air with this one, addressing post-partum depression, medical distrust in women’s and particularly non-white women’s maladies and concerns, racial and cultural confusion among blended families, the loss of tradition to modernity and the disappearing of the past as a consequence, it’s almost too much. While some of these issues are handled deftly, unfortunately the big ones are clunky in their execution with the obvious dialogue betraying some really solid performances by our three main characters.

Shari Sebbens delivers a blistering performance as Sarah, putting everything she’s got into this role of a woman seemingly losing her mind as she tries to protect her children from this invisible threat. There’s no doubt she was game to handle anything that was thrown at her, sadly the material she was given to work with doesn’t live up to her talents. Blurting out obvious messaging in the midst of chaos just doesn’t fit, the dialogue turns more toward diatribe as the film nears its spectacular end, it’s a shame the film doesn’t trust its audience to connect the dots and instead insists on doing it for them.

Sebbens is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast in Wyatt and Rose, who – fortunately – aren’t saddled with the awkward scripting that she is. Wyatt’s performance as Fergus paints him as a husband who would do anything for his family, pushed to the end of his tether as the mother of his children seems to be losing her mind. Rose’s Ruth is equally effective as she attempts to strengthen Sarah’s ties to her biological roots for the sake of her family. The child acting is iffy, but that’s a tough nut to crack, and for some of their shortcomings, when Jahdeana Mary as Sarah’s elder daughter Chloe really turns it up, she’s on fire.

The Moogai itself is a genuinely scary creation, though it’s actual appearance at the end of the film doesn’t seem to match the creature being described throughout the film. There are numerous references to a long-armed demon, and what little we see in the early phases of the film seem to bear that out as we are given glimpses of shadows and long fingers creeping up from under the bed. What we get in the end is much less horrifying than what we’ve been led to conjure in our heads, which leads one to believe that maybe it would have been better left in the shadows.

The Moogai is a frustrating watch, because there’s definitely a story worth telling here, but it’s handled with the grace of a bulldozer. For all of the excellent casting and performances, it’s the script that lets it down in the end, saddling Sarah with cliches and platitudes that deflate tense moments over and over again. It’s a film that tries to be scary and at the same time wants to beat the audience over the head with why it’s scary, and if you have to tell me over and over again, you’ve made a mistake somewhere. It’s a shame because the film gets the audience on its side early and squanders that goodwill early and often, it’s a real disappointment.

The Moogai

  • Jon Bell
  • Jon Bell
  • Bella Heathcote
  • Toby Leonard Moore
  • Alexandra Jensen
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Jon BellShari SebbensSXSW 2024Bella HeathcoteToby Leonard MooreAlexandra JensenHorror

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