Written by: Pollyanna McIntosh (script), Lucky McKee (characters), Jack Ketchum (characters)
Directed by: Pollyanna McIntosh
Starring: Lauryn Canny, Bryan Batt, and Nora-Jane Noone
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Don't Mess with Mother's Nature
One of the more unlikely series in recent memories continues with Darlin’, the third entry in the set of films that started all the way back in 2009 with Offspring, Andrew van den Houten’s rugged, unassuming adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s Off Season. Perhaps only van de Houten’s friend, who insisted that Pollyanna McIntosh’s feral woman be kept alive, saw the potential for an actual series, which came to fruition once Lucky McKee took the reins for 2011’s The Woman. Perhaps even more unlikely is the direction McKee took it, as he saw Ketchum’s macabre, backwoods schlock as an entry point for a sharp, savage take-down of the tyranny of pious, toxic masculinity. McIntosh now continues that thread in Darlin’, where she explores how similar horrors fester within the institutionalized walls of church and state and insidiously victimize young women. It’s a clever, organic way to move forward without feeling too much like a retread; indeed, this entry feels as different from The Woman as that film felt from its predecessor, which is sometimes a nice bonus when dealing with franchises.
In the eight years since the previous film, little Darlin’ Cleek (Lauryn Canny) has been on the lam with The Woman (McIntosh), who abducted or freed her from her family, depending on your persuasion. Now a feral, nonverbal teenager, she finds herself in a medical clinic after her adoptive mother drops her off without a word. Everyone is baffled by Darlin’, particularly the sneering doctors who just can’t wait to be rid of her. Only a kindly nurse (Cooper Andrews) attempts to reach out to her, but even he’s thwarted by the considerable cultural barrier. He also can’t do much to stop the wheels of injustice from grinding Darlin’ into its gears when a predatory bishop (Bryan Batt) sees her as an opportunity for good press. With his reform school for girls under fire, the bishop wants Darlin’ to serve as the ultimate example of God’s grace, for if this savage girl can be reformed, then truly his own work must be blessed. Nevermind the various scandals that have unfolded—and continue to unfold—beneath that careful, calculating façade of piety.
Darlin’s bifurcated structure ultimately makes it a portrait of two broken women desperately trying to reclaim a grip on their lives. Most of the film unfolds within the reform school, where Darlin’ has to navigate the insular social circles and the scrutiny of a Catholic education. In one of the better story decisions, the former doesn’t prove to be too terribly difficult: Darlin’ encounters a sort of ragtag group, all of whom have their various quirks but also realize they really only have each other. There’s a warm group dynamic at play here that subverts the story’s horror implications in favor of an awkward coming-of-age tale that often feels more tender than outright squeamish.
After having essentially missed out on adolescence, Darlin’ is caught up to speed by the weird, troubled girls around here, all of whom have been cast off and dismissed in some way. When Darlin’ is at its best, it’s really just a tender hang-out movie where teenage girls are free to figure out what it means to be a teenage girl. Darlin’, of course, is wrestling with more than the average teen, as her memories of her years with The Woman continue to haunt her; we catch glimpses of an episode involving a boy in the woods, an encounter that eventually proves to be intimate, sweet, and utterly horrifying all at once when the full picture emerges. The script smartly doesn’t let The Woman herself off the hook: what she’s done to this girl is completely fucked up, and Darlin’ has to reckon with it as much as she does the leering bishop and the contemptuous nuns.
Of course, these are the main targets caught in the film’s satirical bullseye. Like The Woman, Darlin’ is not content to simply dwell upon the exploitative torture of its titular woman; once again, that’s just the launching point to explore how horrific—and, in this case, systematic—this routine abuse is. The script obviously isn’t coy in its choice of targets with the Catholic Church, which has seen its share of scandal and caught deserved hell for it. Darlin’ isn’t nuanced in this respect: Batt’s turn as the rapacious bishop borders on parody because he can barely conceal his in ignoble intentions for this girl. When he finally deigns to look at her, he’s almost disappointed that she looks “normal,” so much so that he instructs a nun to dirty her up in order to make her seem like even more of a lost soul. This is very much a movie where you can’t wait for this haughty prick to get what’s coming to him: it is perhaps not the most complex or high-minded reasons for a film to exist, but sometimes you just really need to see misogynistic predators take a big, gore-soaked L.
Canny—who is a revelation as Darlin’—turns this proposition into something more than just exploitative rubber-necking, though. While she often adopts a knowing, devious grin with her Catholic captors, a genuinely wounded soul eventually emerges once she forms a relationship with Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone), a sympathetic nun still reckoning with her own abuse at the hands of the church. Early scenes where Darlin’ screws with the nuns during outbursts in class eventually yield to a staggeringly quiet, affecting turn that sees this young girl truly embracing a chance at grace. She becomes a true believer in both the church and herself: for a brief moment, she’s able to confront her bizarre upbringing and even process it, only to have that faith shattered in heartbreaking fashion.
Considering this franchise’s humble beginnings, Darlin’ is an unexpectedly emotional journey, and Canny completely commands the screen in a difficult role. She’s awkward, sweet, vicious, and, most pertinently, quite innocent: despite the atrocities she’s witnessed—and even committed—there’s something angelic about the hopeful glimmer that remains in her eyes until it’s cruelly drained from her. Darlin’ is a complete and utterly captivating portrait of a damaged young woman, one that largely stands on its own two legs, almost completely divorced from the films that preceded it.
Which is perhaps why the other half of the story—which finds The Woman leading a deranged search for the missing Darlin’—feels a bit perfunctory, almost as if it mostly exists to remind you that, yes, Darlin’ is a sequel after all. Don’t get me wrong: this thread feels natural enough, but it often feels like a violent, schlocky intrusion of an otherwise tender, low-key character study. Anyone craving the further, gory exploits of The Woman will be satisfied by the splatter movie outbursts here, which become increasingly ludicrous as she encounters a group of rabble-rousing homeless women just itching to take down the church themselves.
It’s here that Darlin’ starts to tip into the stuff of camp a bit, which I suppose isn’t completely unexpected given the offbeat sensibilities of both Offspring and The Woman. Also, McIntosh often brings a sort of eccentric, unusual energy to her roles that translates effortlessly to her directorial vision: while Darlin’ doesn’t seem to present a situation rife with humor, there’s a bleak sort of absurdity underpinning the whole thing that bursts forth during a manic, uproarious climax. For about 80 minutes, Darlin’ is this sweet, often evocative little drama until McIntosh—who hacks and slashes at the margins of the picture—goes scorched earth with a bizarre childbirth and puking communion girls. At first blush, it’s natural to pause at this and wonder if the climax doesn’t completely upend the picture since it is a pretty hard left turn back into the sort of ghastly provocation that defines Offspring and The Woman (you may recall that the latter famously resulted in a public display of fainting at Sundance, which naturally became the film’s calling card).
I’m not sure if I’m still not wondering this myself. To be sure, there’s something almost nihilistic and bleak about the way the title character is treated here; of course, I also realize that this is the point, and it could be that McIntosh is arguing about The Woman’s own complicity in the cycle of abuse on display. It’ll be interesting to see if she’s ever compelled to return to the role and continue the possible story left dangling at the end here. I don’t doubt that I’ll certainly be there if it happens: between this and The Woman, this unassuming little series of movies has only become more bold and interesting. McIntosh acquits herself well behind the camera here with striking visuals that capture the delicate sense of melancholy hanging over the film. My (slight) misgivings with the climax’s tone aside, Darlin’ is a haunting film that shrewdly builds on its existing lore.
The script doesn’t dwell on those intermittent years between this and The Woman but instead allows them to subtly shade the proceedings, as a bleak update about the other Cleek sister (Lauren Ashley Carter in a cameo) haunts Darlin’ in an organic manner, making this a sequel that feels legitimately vital instead of a hastily-produced, unnecessary epilogue. There’s a level of thoughtfulness and care that’s gone into Darlin’ that’s just nice to see—appropriately enough, this demented little set of films have always felt like the filmmakers’ baby, so it’s not at all surprising that this third entry is a delicately crafted success.
Darlin' is now available on Blu-ray from Dark Sky Entertainment. Bonus features include a commentary by McIntosh, a behind-the-scenes feature, a deleted scene, and the film's trailer.
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