There is a funny way that a droning song can wrap its way around your ears, and transport you to a place of emotional isolation. It is a good feeling on one hand, safe, comfortable, the relinquishing of control. On the other hand, it is scary. As comforting as that staggered melody may be, there is something controlling about it. Something about it that is akin to hypnosis.
At its best Hellbender, the new film from John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser captures this feeling perfectly. Zelda plays a young woman named Izzy, who is kept away from the world by her Mother (Posey). Their situation is immediately odd, as Izzy is told by Mother that she is sick and must stay away from other people. Mother exacerbates the situation by going around disposing of anybody who bothers to get too close to the two. Their only refuge from this strange way of life is in a group heavy metal practice. An artistic melding that allows both women to express themselves together.
It is in this premise, and the execution of these elements, where Hellbender is at its best. Most of the film is in Zelda’s insular point-of-view, and that hazy viewpoint proves rather entertaining. Only a few minutes into the film, there’s a montage that feels especially perfect. The heavy-metal music blasts loudly, but slowly, into our ears. The edit is slow and steady, and full of dissolves that take us through Zelda’s mindspace. There is a deliberate air of artifice that makes it apparent that the audience is inside the mind of a teenager.
That Hellbender is so good at this so often makes it disappointing that much of the other material is a bit unfocused. As much as the less than perfect cinematography and sound design instill the artifice of youth, the elements that surround them are scattershot. Interesting symbols are brought up, but too late into the story. Interesting effects sequences try to emotionally convey the story, but they are few and far between. Performances sputter and start with mumblecore realism, but the rhythm of the edit is off. Hellbender is not going for polished melodrama, or indie realism, and it lands somewhere in the middle. The artifice is not emotional enough to fill in the blanks, and neither is the realism.
All that before you take the full thematic context of the film into consideration. Hellbender seems strangely scared of the new. As much as it wants to be about the emergence of a new power in the place of the old, it seems strangely scared of that new power. There is an obvious point-of-view shift within the film that feels somewhat disjointed, and suggests a vaguely conservative viewpoint that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. There is no hope in the transference of worldly and other-worldly powers here.
All that being said, I cannot help but return to the magnificence of that early montage. It so specifically captures the feeling of being alone in your room, alone in your head, comforted by personal choice, but scared by it all the same. It touched a strange honesty to me about the internal life of a young person. The very fact that Hellbender got there is enough for me to at least be enamored with it.
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