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by Jay Seaver

"Plenty gross, but also plenty interesting."
4 stars

SCREENED AT MONSTERFEST 2016: There's a last-scene reveal to "Raw" that, as well-done as it is, seems to run counter to the way the rest of the film works: If this is meant to shock and surprise, then why has everything else been so casual, so willing to play the horror as something that is simply not spoken about between the characters? It's an indecisiveness that often frustrates, because writer/director Julia Ducournau often seems to be onto something great with her horrific twist on the coming-of-age story.

The young lady coming of age is Justine (Garance Marillier), about seventeen and looking younger than many of her incoming classmates at a French veterinary college. She'll be joining her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) there, although Alex hasn't had much contact with her family since starting school. She quickly makes friends with roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), although she doesn't expect the level of hazing that she's in for, with the first night culminating in being forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys. That's gross enough even before considering that the girls' parents (Laurent Lucas & Joana Preiss) raised them as strict vegetarians - and it soon seems that this first taste of flesh is kickstarting far stronger urges in Justine.

Yes, those cravings wind up going about where you'd expect, directly enough that it's good to see that Ducournau is good with a gross-out. Excellent, really, building up with moments that almost chastise the audience for being squeamish - bikini waxes and biology classes may make one wince, but they're not really perverse - and then getting the absolute most out of some gruesome practical effects. She doesn't pile on nastiness just for the sake of it - there seems to be a very purposeful escalation each time that reflects what is going on with Justine, and once the audience is acclimated, any sort of closeness or intimacy becomes suspect.

And if gore is only a small part of what makes Raw noteworthy, the lead performance by Garance Marillier more than fills the gap. Without coming across as particularly ignorant or foolish, she starts Justine as kind of a precocious but decent teenager, capturing how, from one moment to the next, she might be finding herself staggered by a world that doesn't care how sheltered she was or eager to test her limits without parents around to constrain her. She conveys the horror at what she may be capable of even as she dives into them in the moment. Marillier also has a great chemistry with Ella Rumpf as Alex; they have moments of vicious sibling rivalry that give way to a sort of relief at having each other, and the way they interact in the second half of the movie is kind of fascinating: There's a comfort to how, even if they don't want to talk about their secrets, they don't have to put working into hiding them. It's a bond that makes some of the more outrageous moments believable.

When Ducournau has her ideas and the story aligned, Raw seems brilliant - even what could be the film's biggest plot hole, that a large chunk of the mayhem should have been predictable, works itself out when you consider just how reluctant families can be to talk about personal issues. It can be a great stew of emotional volatility and young people needing to learn how to control their urges at its best, but it can also seem like Ducournau has overcommitted to plot devices or kept the cast of characters a little too tight - the hazing seems extreme (maybe it's not in France) and like something that pops up randomly when the movie needs it, and the whole triangle with Justine, Alexia, and Adrien would seem a bit forced even without the guy in question being gay.

Those flaws loomed a bit larger than perhaps they should for me - sometimes a festival serves up a slow, thoughtful burn when your body just wants a movie that gets on with it - and I suspect I'd be more forgiving of them on another viewing. Certainly, there's enough good stuff here, whether nasty or thoughtful, to turn some heads, with the whole thing being plenty good enough to earn a reaction beyond queasiness.

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originally posted: 11/25/16 10:16:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2016 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Monster Fest For more in the 2016 Monster Fest series, click here.

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