Netflix Picks: The Babadook

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Don't look to The Babadook for a straightforward horror experience (“Festival of Funny”, Renshaw, Jan. 29, 2014). While it achieves a persistent sense of discomfort and revulsion, the overt scares are dialed back. Instead, watch Jennifer Kent's 2014 film for an all-too-realistic character examination of the difficult lives of a grieving mother and her troubled child.

Seven years ago, Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis) lost her husband, Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), in a car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia still has trouble coping with the loss. Most notably, she never developed a bond with her son. Though she feeds him, takes him to school and the like, she acts out of duty, not love. Amelia is also lonely. She isn't dating, and neither her sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), nor her dwindling friends want to spend time with her; they can't stand being around Samuel. He screams and acts erratically, presenting the emotional capacity of a toddler. Worse yet, Samuel brings a homemade crossbow to school; Amelia has to pull him out of class.

Samuel won't sleep through the night, complaining about monsters under the bed and in the closet. Amelia is exhausted and visibly frustrated from comforting Samuel night after night. One evening, she reads Samuel a book she doesn't recognize: Mister Babadook. The Babadook (Tim Purcell) is a shadowy creature in a top hat that refuses to leave once you know its name. Symbolically, it represents Amelia's grief over her husband and resentment of her son. After calming down her screaming son, she tears the book up, visibly unsettled by its illustrations.

But the book returns with new pages depicting Amelia murdering her dog and son, then killing herself. Though she burns the book, shadows of sharp fingers and a top hat lurk in the corner of her eye. Both Amelia and Samuel grow more erratic and violent as paranoid exhaustion takes its toll. Eventually, it possesses Amelia and starts to attack Samuel. He fights back and manages to trap his mother and expel the Babadook. Back in control of herself, Amelia refuses to let the Babadook threaten her or her family and traps it in the basement. How? Don't worry about it; it's a metaphor, not a mythical creature. In any case, with her grief under control, Amelia is able to bond with her son at last.

This film is built on an Oscar-grade performance from Davis, selling Amelia's grief and misery as naturally as I've seen on a screen. Her casual neglect of Samuel is all too real and all too human. Amelia is always a person struggling to love a troubled child first. Even when she's possessed by the Babadook, she never goes full monster, save for when she chokes their dog to death. Davis' performance hurts like the scar of an old betrayal. Points as well to young Wiseman for portraying a precocious, troubled child nearly perfectly, right down to understanding his mother more than she wants to think.

Kent's sets are worth mentioning – the palate of grays in the Vannick house has a great atmosphere that evokes Tim Burton dialed back into reality. The Babadook itself jumps out of a children's book and a child's nightmare. Though we never see it clearly, it has an iconic silhouette that will no doubt pop out of innocuous objects in your bedroom.

All that said, The Babadook isn't too satisfying from a horror standpoint. Think of it more as an Oscar-bait movie, but less racist/sexist. Sure, there's this cockroachy hallucination making Amelia act crazy, but as noted, it's all a metaphor used to explore grief and parenting. Though that's not a bad thing, it makes for a disappointing monster. In the sense that the abuse and misery in Amelia's and Samuel's lives are plausible and painful, The Babadook is a fantastic expression of horror from within. But the slow, aching dread leads to an underwhelming climax. The ending makes sense with the overarching metaphor – we tame our ugly thoughts and feelings, we don't get rid of them – but it feels too nice next to the rest of the movie. While The Babadook excels at Oscars-grade psychological drama, it doesn't satisfy as a horror film.

Rather than exploring the extremes of the human experience as horror so often does, The Babadook looks at ugly emotions that many parents face. It stands on the back of an amazing performance by Davis and realistic characters on all fronts. It's a necessary movie for every parent who feels bad for the unspoken thoughts that emerge when they feel helpless and overwhelmed. This movie is one of the more intense and uncomfortable character dramas I've seen.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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