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story.lead_photo.caption Seana Kerslake stars as Sarah, a mother who moves with her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) to a country home on the edge of a forest, in the horror film A Hole in the Ground, which premiered as last week’s Sundance Film Festival.

PARK CITY, Utah -- There are a great many reasons to be scared of having kids. Maybe you won't make a good parent, making the same mistakes your parents did. You'll over-indulge them, or you won't indulge them enough. They will grow up gnarled, like diseased saplings, and blame you for it for the rest of their embittered lives.

Then there is this: At the end of the day, you might have brought them in the world, but you still won't ever really know what they're capable of. You could see them every day for 14 straight years, but when the time comes, looking at them over the breakfast table, you can find yourself not having the foggiest clue who they are anymore. Right under your nose, as you've been watching them, they have suddenly become the other.

In Uruguayan filmmaker Lucia Garibaldi's The Sharks, a 14-year-old girl named Rosina (Romina Bentancur), staying with her family in a cozy shore village, thinks she spots a shark circling in the relatively shallow waters near the beach, but it turns out, this isn't the predator you need to worry about.

Rosina, mostly bored and somnambulant, develops a crush on Joselo (Fabian Arenillas), a young man whom she works with at her father's landscaping business. After a very brief, and none-too-successful, tryst, the disaffected Rosina visits a curious series of torments upon the young man. First stealing his dog and hiding her in the woods, then calling him from an unlisted cellphone and hanging up; then, at the end, with something a bit more brazen and potentially dangerous.

Interestingly, Garibaldi never tries to explain or justify Rosina's behavior. A cipher, her expression almost never changes, even when it's clear by her actions that something matters to her a great deal. By the end, we come to realize her motivation has very little to do with emotion and even less about romantic drama: She's a Machiavelli in training, pure and simple, just testing the waters in the power of manipulation. She's not lying when she says she saw a shark, as it happens, but just about everything else she does and says features one degree of dishonesty or another. There are better ways to strike your victim beyond rows of jagged teeth.

In A Hole in the Ground, a different sort of fear strikes Sarah (Seana Kerslake), an Irish woman fleeing an abusive relationship with her 8-year-old son, Christopher (James Quinn Markey), in tow. She moves to a small, country village, and takes residence in an old brick house, which she works to restore, as young Christopher becomes acclimated to his new school. Shy and somewhat melancholy, at first Sarah doesn't know what to make of her son when shortly after their arrival, he appears to emerge from his shell, and join the popular set.

There's more: Always a reluctant eater, Christopher now wolfs down everything in sight, and the dreamy, artistic nature of her son seems to give way to a more self-consciously obedient version, whose inner life has been wiped clean. Suspicious, Sarah eventually comes to suspect that her son has been replaced by an exact physical copy, a changeling, as it were, which, in turn makes her desperately anxious about her actual son.

Lee Cronin has made a curious sort of folk tale (introducing the film to the audience, he referred to it as proper "Irish horror"). The first hour or so the narrative skates along very familiar tropes: single mother, creepy child, a remote, shadowy estate, playing each scene in a recognizable series of narrative beats. But, setting up the third act (which begins precisely when Sarah finally announces to Christopher "You're not my son!"), suddenly Cronin eschews the familiar, worn approach and turns every dial to 11, making for an impressively terrifying (and entertaining) climax.

It's the kind of question that could plague even the least paranoid sort of parent. When our kids stop acting like themselves, what has happened to them, and how are we meant to contend with this awful imposter put in their place? As good a metaphor for adolescence as any, Cronin's film picks away at a common terror for parents, young and old: What are we meant to do when the child we thought we knew suddenly morphs into someone entirely different?

More creepy kids are afoot in Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz' The Lodge, though it takes us almost the entire film to figure that out. When the mother (Alicia Silverstone) of son Aiden (Jaeden Lieberher) and daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) commits suicide after their father (Richard Armitage) leaves her for young, beautiful Grace (Riley Keough), who as a young girl, was the lone survivor of a cult who drank poison, the kids turn their full resentment on their father's new lover, and are horrified when he tells them he plans on marrying her in the spring.

His solution to their discord is to take the three of them up to the family's vacation home up in the mountains for Christmas, and ... leave them up there for a couple of days while he returns to work before the holiday. What seems like a fantastically abysmal idea gets worse, when after a day or two of the kids ignoring her, Grace begins to unravel, like a cheap sweater in the wash. They wake up one morning to find all their coats and food gone, and the house without power during a heavy snowstorm. Becoming more and more unglued, Grace, who has lost her stabilizing medication as well, can't be sure if the children are orchestrating things against her, or her own personal madness is taking over.

It could have been a solid enough premise, and atmospherically the directing duo, whose previous film Goodnight Mommy had similar spooky chops, is first-rate. But like their previous film, when it comes to actually sealing the deal narratively, things fall apart in a hurry. After a sketchy Scooby-Doo-like revelation, the film's credibility takes a large hit, none of which helps make up for the father's beyond-idiotic behavior. You can see where the filmmakers want us to go with it, but they can't get out of their own way fast enough to have it hit more than a glancing blow.

No such problem for Julius Onah's fantastic Luce, a film that delves fascinatingly into the layers of identity necessary for a black man growing up in a predominantly white, affluent neighborhood. His color is not all that sets Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) apart from many of his peers. Handsome, preternaturally charming, with a tendency toward adult-pleasing obsequiousness, Luce is the star of his NoVA high school. Brought to the United States as an emotionally damaged child from his native war-torn Eritrea by a pair of doting parents, Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), he's the school valedictorian, a track athlete, and the favorite of his teachers and the school administrators, who see him as enormously important to the branding of their institution.

That is, all but one teacher, the hard-edged Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who seems to have something of a vendetta against him. After he writes a vaguely disturbing paper in her class, she takes the opportunity to rife through his locker, where she finds a bag of high-intensity fireworks. This she brings to the attention of his parents, and thus ensues a sort of rising tete-a-tete between her and the school superstar, with Luce, ever pleasant and deferential to her face, harboring his own unspoken feelings behind his implacable countenance.

Part of Onah's skill is to render each character with his or her own agenda, only some of which is ever visible on the surface. In the vein of Do the Right Thing, the movie reflects a complicated, twirling prism of point of views, in which everybody is either busy manipulating or being manipulated.

Onah also has a way of quick-jumping his characters' (and the audience's) sympathies: No one is a more staunch proponent of Luce than his mother, yet even she keeps switching her perception of him. At first, she's certain he's lying to her, then she takes enormous umbrage against Ms. Wilson, then she ends up complicit with her own falsehood. As with Spike Lee's classic, Onah is careful to not tip his hand as to whom he sees as correct or not, which leaves the narrative engagingly uncertain. At the center of this ambiguity is Luce himself, conspicuously placid up until the very last shot of the film, which, only then hints at the turmoil raging in his soul.

MovieStyle on 02/01/2019

Print Headline: Letter from Sundance: These kids ain't all right


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