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by Jay Seaver

"Perhaps not spun far enough off from its predecessors."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Darlin'" is a weird one, strange enough to make me wonder if it would play better or worse if I'd seen the previous films in this somewhat loose series. You don't actually need "Offspring" or "The Woman" to make sense of it, but even so, it's not hard to sense that something isn't quite right here, like it would be a stronger movie if it were more free to be entirely its own thing or a more direct continuation.

The title character (Lauryn Canny) starts the film almost feral, led to a hospital by a similarly naked and uncommunicative woman (Pollyanna McIntosh), where she's able to make at least a small connection with one of the nurses (Cooper Andrews). The hospital has recently been taken over by a Catholic organization, which means that Darlin' is soon transferred to St. Philomina's Group Home for Girls, where Sister Jennifer (Nara-Jane Noone) has been asked to make a special project of her by the bishop (Bryan Batt), who sees the opportunity to reform this wayward child as a way to secure publicity and funding. Everybody seems to avoid being too curious about Darlin' or her history as she swallows the nuns' indoctrination, which means that The Woman lurking in the shadows and wanting her back is just one of two surprises lurking in the corner.

This is Pollyanna McIntosh's third time playing The Woman, this time around taking over as writer and director, and she seems to recognize that the things which were horrifying and transgressive in the previous films may not still have the same kick in the second sequel - cannibalism is still objectively awful, of course, but I imagine that someone doing watching these films back-to-back will mostly be critiquing the quality of the gore effects by the time The Woman kills her first person in this one. So she's smart to switch it up and focus on a situation where the abuse takes a different, more insidious form, and her script is pretty clever about how she sets it up: An early comment by the nurse about how St. Philomina's didn't even respond to the interest he and his husband showed in adopting and the pointed hanging of a cross in the hospital's lobby turn out to be important signifiers in how people who talk a good game about righteousness can often stand in the way of doing good, and it's built so that, while viewers can use the Catholic Church's specific scandals and beliefs as a shorthand, it's the general idea of religion reasserting dominance in spaces that had previously become more secular that plays as the true danger. Darlin' is in many ways a blank slate - but just as crucially, in many ways not - which means the way in which this trend imprints on her is fascinating and sets up the last act very well.

Lauryn Canny needs to be terrific as Darlin' for that to work, of course, and she winds up being the single best thing about the movie. Connecting the feral girl with the later scenes where she's swallowed a lot of Catholic dogma is no small feat, but she manages to embody those two opposite faces of innocence in a way that effectively links them so that her lashing out early and desperation to believe, as well as her deep hurt and confusion when she starts to realize that things aren't all okay here. She's fantastic and surrounded by a great young cast that makes one wish that the other girls at the orphanage were a bigger part of the film, with Maddie Nichols the standout but the whole lot having their own sort of gallows humor; I'd watch a movie about those kids with no murder, easily. The adult cast is excellent as well, with Nora-Jane Noone giving Sister Jennifer a sort of nervous faith, Cooper Andrews imbuing Nurse Tony with great unexaggerated decency, and Bryan Batt pushing The Bishop's smarminess just hard enough that viewers are really hoping for him to get stabbed and eaten without coming off as a cartoon villain.

The biggest issue winds up being McIntosh's The Woman herself. In a Q&A after the festival screening, she mentioned that character co-creator Lucky McKee read over her initial draft and suggested she was underused, but much of the time the film likely would have been improved if she had stuck with her initial instincts. McIntosh is generally great in a role where her character doesn't have to give a damn about what anyone else thinks, but every moment she's on-screen after doing the work of getting Darlin' to the hospital feels off. Given the nature of the character (basically non-verbal and not prone to carrying mementos), it's difficult for McIntosh to use these scenes to elaborate on her bond with Darlin' (maybe that's supposed to carry over from The Woman), but she's never connected to what's happening in the orphanage for what she does to feel like more than just increasing the body count in a horror movie that wouldn't have much of one otherwise, or having her incongruous presence contribute humor that, even when it involves her murdering someone, never seems as dark or cutting as Sister Jennifer or the orphan girls being brutally honest about their lives.

There's a lot of swagger and heavy handedness in some scenes, moments of real-life weirdness that don't feel quite as home in a film that seems like it sprang from more somber roots. How cohesive is the whole series? I've got no idea. The subject matter frequently plays as a smart departure, but McIntosh never quite finds the right overlap between the cult-classic films which spawned it and her own creative voice to get the most out of it.

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originally posted: 07/17/19 01:42:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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