Between the Darkness

Between the Darkness, the debut feature film of Andres Rovira, has the title of a student film. It also has a look that exceeds the title, a sort of amped down A24 look; it wouldn’t be out of place in their library, by cinematography alone. Someone in the movie says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” and that’s a perfectly opposite description of the brilliance and inadequacy of Between the Darkness. Its physical, technical aspects are high art, without overdoing it to the point of pretension. Its script is just as high-minded, but Rovira writes it as though the audience is unable to understand its meaning, which results in that meaning being delivered as nothing more than exposition. This movie wants to make sure you know what it’s about, even if it has to straight up tell you. That's what gives its beautiful imagery a deficiency of spirit.

Like the best horror films, Between the Darkness knows that nothing can be scary unless it’s set up as drama. The scary thing about The Exorcist is not that a demon possesses a little girl (we’ve seen a thousand times how not scary that can be) but that a mom fears for her daughter’s spirit. Rovira starts out Between the Darkness with Sprout (Nicole Moorea Sherman) standing in a mirror, checking to see if her breasts have grown, looking at her face and wondering when it will get as pretty as everyone expects it to. Any horror that awaited her would mean nothing without this moment: it ensures that we will see a monster not for its physical threat but for a broken self-image. It’s an essential, brilliant first step.

But her dad (Lew Temple), natural enough at first (he calls the kids, “critters”) pretty quickly makes the movie too obvious for its own good. At dinner, he thanks Greek gods for their bounty and pleads for the memory of the “fallen daughter.” This makes the story’s genuinely meaningful context for Sprout’s sexuality problems (a beautiful, deified sister, whose memory makes it hard to accept being an awkward thirteen-year-old) needlessly aggressive. It would be just as meaningful, and more, if this was a matter of her idea of herself. But the dad insists on explaining it and partaking in it through tribal dances, awkward prayers, and eventually taking over the plot entirely; meanwhile, it's hard to get a grip on what his children are thinking. He explains away the construct that should be the most essential in the film: Sprout’s perspective.

She’s the spirit that needed cultivating to make Between the Darkness mean more than just what it was willing to tell us about itself. Her father’s excessively controlling beliefs (he often tells Sprout to give a certain god an hour of silence, in accordance with her sins) aren’t shown to affect her personally. As a result, they can’t affect us. We never see those hours of silence, not even once, and they could have been searing, self-loathing, passionate little eternities that took advantage of all those slow, primary color hazes that sometimes recall Natasha Braier's films. But they all happen off-screen. We never feel how this lifestyle breaks Sprout down or traumatizes her emotionally: she seems resourceful and reasonably well-adjusted, equal to a little boy her age (Max Page) who comes around to play. Compare this to The Babadook, where in even the youngest of children, grief creates the sense of “Otherness” that Rovira writes into Between the Darkness and, luxuriously, has the dad call it by name. Yet, by silencing Sprout’s voice, that Otherness barely makes any appearance in the movie. Sprout goes off into the woods with a homemade spear and grease-painted cheeks and a woven crown because she thinks she might be an Amazon. But we never see her do anything outside of what a normal thirteen-year-old might do. Her repression doesn't seem to have affected her.

Since we never see her punishment rituals or detect anything too abnormal about her upbringing other than what seems at first like Hipster insouciance, when the dad blurts out a diatribe condemning “tangled genders” and “mixed race unions” it comes from nothing that we’ve experienced so far; it has the tone of those church-funded movies that have to plug the Bible at some point in the conversation. The dad's loose interpretation of Hellenism, which thinks very highly of its disciplinary maxims but not so much its social ones, becomes very similar to how most movies think of Christianity. He lives the contradiction of desiring sex and hating those who give him the desire. Where Between the Darkness is about that sexual ego, it becomes most confusing: he prays to Zeus but acts like a Puritan; he acts like a Puritan but buys the kids modern clothes. We just don’t see enough of what goes on here in the details. But where it gets most meaningful is on the periphery of that, where its images come closer to Sprout, and how sexual restrictions make her feel. Any moment that features that is like a respite, like a reminder of what the entire movie means to be about.

The most provocative image in the movie is a dreamy setup: Sprout flees into the woods and finds a lean-to. Inside, pinks sheets patterned like the flowery wallpaper of her room surround a shrine of femininity; it’s a deconstructed version of every girl growing up, from crayons to perfume. She cradles a toy doll and looks up at an enshrined party dress on a manakin; the counter is packed with brushes and makeup and pin-ups and roses. It’s a perfect image to conclude a progression that’s not quite present: the assault on her sexuality throughout the movie that we can sort of detect, but not intimately feel. For instance, her dad is enraged when she’s dancing like a clubber in a trendy top, implying oppression, but it’s confusing that he would buy her that top to begin with; we don’t have enough details to put their lives in the context of any time. We see that they live in a regressive state of anti-technology (the only electronic is an old radio), but Sprout is also wearing new jeans and a lot of foundation on her face, things I would think the dad would forbid. The images are often enticingly natural – light splitting through the trees, a long, still perspective of a far-off conversation, which will factor in later – but their connection to the state of mind of the people through the details is very faint.

Here’s an example. Sprout says she sees a Gorgon in the yard. We sense this has something to do with her guilt over her dead mother and sister and her harsh upbringing – Rovira wisely never introduces a real monster element into the movie, and keeps those typical setups where the camera and music windup to a jump-scare far away from Between the Darkness, which was incredibly refreshing. This restraint arms us with the ability to see a monster as meaning something greater, something about the way the characters think of themselves. When Sprout and her dad hunt for Gorgons, we can feel the hunt converging on their mutual perspective of femininity, and the parts of it they fear in themselves and others; I wish the hunt had been much longer. But what little we see of the monster is ugly, rather than tempting (it has the silhouette of Pumpkinhead), and the dad even refers to it as male at one point (“I’m not gonna let him hurt you”). So it’s difficult to know for certain what about Gorgons fascinated Rovira enough to put them in here. He seems to be aiming at The Witch, a movie about how the way we fear sexuality in others can become a monster. It just doesn’t quite make it there.

Part of the problem, unfortunately, is Sherman’s acting. Under this particular direction, she lacks something very specific that the part needed: when she’s afraid, and even especially when she’s crying, she has no desperation in her. She cries like she’s faking it to make her parents buy her something. It’s a problem that keeps mounting because it puts us further away from understanding and getting involved in Sprout’s perspective, which is the key. All of this life stress never seems to exhaust her. Between the Darkness has a lot of ideas about how kids feel and how parents make them feel but a lot of its great ideas don't read because it doesn’t contain enough of their perspective. Tate Birchmore as her little brother is also mostly inert, though he has a bit of Milly Shapiro in him, the blank-eyed little girl from Hereditary, like he has more brow than he’s ready for. Temple plays the dad like Matthew McConaughey trying out the Chris Elliott aesthetic. He embraces the part without quite having the chin for it.

Diego Rojas' music is full of sliding, metallic cringes and screams; it has the right art in it for a movie about a girl afraid to be a girl. It makes a disastrous decision though: part of the soundtrack is a human voice making the Hannibal Lecter fava bean sound, just a guy slurping; it gives every scene it happens in an irredeemable effect of cheapness that the cinematography never has. The movie is logical except for one glaring transgression: Sprout clubs someone over the head with a rock and then the scene passes through a flashback (they usually get in the way) to the next scene, where she has been captured by them. We absolutely did not witness that.

Between the Darkness thinks highly of itself; sometimes, in order to mean more than a closet full of jack-in-the-boxes, you have to. I just wish it thought more of us, more of what we could take and what we would understand. We can see that the monster relates to sexuality, but instead of exploring it more deeply through visual oppression, routine, and details of Sprout’s daily life, it features long, verbal explanations of that symbolism. The film's closing song is so explicit that it would be a spoiler to mention its name; it would not be more obvious if it was titled "I Survived a Horror Movie." Imagine the father in The Witch going over Wikipedia-length diatribes on sexuality and mythology, instead of that passive aggressive slow explosion over a mundane little dinner. Between the Darkness longs for mundanity like that. Rovira writes a lot of dialogue for the little kids, but never quite figures out how kids sound, particularly ones that have been so repressed. I love and respect the fact that the film never goes beyond realness in its spirituality and its threats. That ambition makes it better than hundreds of more expensive movies. It definitely knows what its people should look like. It just never quite grasps their spirit.

***

Between the Darkness will be released on streaming platforms August 20, 2019. 

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Andres Rovira

Andres Rovira

Roy Grady Lew Temple
Stella Woodhouse Danielle Harris
Sprout Nicole Moorea Sherman
Percy Tate Birchmore
Max Max Page
Magda Daniela Leon

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