On loss and grief, teenagers and parents, and youthful impulsivity gone horribly wrong
Pyewacket IFC Midnight
Director: Adam MacDonald
Screenplay: Adam MacDonald
Starring: Nicole Muñoz, Laurie Holden, Chloe Rose, Eric Osborne, Romeo Carere and James McGowan
Not rated / 1 hour, 30 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Pyewacket is acutely aware of the space it inhabits, physical and otherwise. Of the value of distance and time and consciousness, and how much can be hidden in between them.
So much of the narrative focuses either on actions intended to have future (but never immediate) consequences, or the aftermath of events we never get to see. Writer/director Adam MacDonald (Backcountry) emphasizes moments of inscrutable truth - moments we can only try to interpret, or bring our assumptions to (or our guesses). A character who may be one person or another. A panicked, terrified morning-after reaction to a night skipped over almost completely.
For our central character Leah Reyes (Nicole Muñoz) - a typical moody teenager with a small but close circle of friends, who happens to have gotten a taste for witchcraft - answers to, and consequences for, her wishes are on something of an elusive schedule. One key scene revolves around something she hears - or thinks she hears - but offers no certainty that it's the force she believes it could, maybe, possibly be. Visual confirmation arrives only when she's asleep. That she chose to go out into the woods and perform an occult ritual of such lethal magnitude (the curse is meant to kill her mother) is an act of impulsivity but, more importantly, uncertainty; she has no idea whether it will work, and in fact probably deep down believes it won't. It's more a symbolic act of rebellion than an attempted act of violence.
But the ritual needs no faith. Nor is it under any obligation to give its conjurer any peace of mind one way or another. That's the modus operandi for Pyewacket, thematically and practically - to take up residence in doubt and anticipation and allow those forces to slowly close in on Leah.
MacDonald wastes no time creating a physical space for those seeds to propagate. The film opens with moody establishing shots of the very forest that will soon envelop Leah (ostensibly against her will), its grey thickets augmented by the score's apprehensive melodies of silence.
There's a more literal space - a physical distance, more specifically - that incites all this supernatural menace in the first place, pushing Leah's preoccupation with the dark arts from thoughts to actions. Her mom (Laurie Holden) has decided to move the two of them from their comfortable suburban home to a bigger house out in the country. She needs a fresh start. They both do, really - they've been increasingly at each other's throats since the death of Leah's father some time earlier. (The point is made that his death was the impetus for her sudden interest in the occult - either a direct, intentional response to facing the reality of death or a more subconscious way to reconcile with it. There's not much more detail to it beyond that.)
The move is nearly immediate - but, as an overture of compromise or goodwill, Mom allows Leah to stay at her current school for the remainder of the school year, even if it means a two-hour round trip every morning just to make it work. Leah is unimpressed. And after a particularly nasty argument between the two just after the move, Leah finally decides to bite the bullet with all the ritualistic supplies she's stashed in her closet. Out she goes deep into the woods to initiate the ceremony that, if all goes according to plan, will rid her of the presumptive source of all her problems.
The sincerity with which she performs the ritual - its life-and-death seriousness notwithstanding - makes her both an endearing figure and a tragic one. Endearing not because of the surface intent of her actions (trying to kill your mom isn't exactly a forgivable offense), but because those actions are compelled by earnest - and instantly familiar - youthful irrationality. Like a kid who angrily wishes or prays that she didn't have a family, or that he'd never been born. It's a teenage lash-out, a knee-jerk reaction to an emotional argument, and the spell she decides to cast is more an abstraction than a premeditated act of future violence. When she completes it and returns home and calms down, everything seems normal and she's easily able to convince herself that none of that was real, nothing will happen, everything and everyone will be fine. Every teenager angrily wishes their parents would disappear every now and then. Maybe vice-versa, too. In Leah's case, she had the bad fortune to put her youthful faith in the hands of an entity that means business.
MacDonald has a nice command of his atmosphere, both indoors and out. When Leah and her mother move into the new home, the camera glides like a spirit through its bare rooms and doorways, almost evoking a physical presence. Out in the woods there's an eerie calm, as if MacDonald is always leaving room for Leah's subconscious and her anxiety to work against her - constantly making her wonder how alone she really is.
Pyewacket's most obvious misstep is the same obvious misstep so many movies about supernatural forces often take: the expert information dump. In this case, it's an author who specializes in the occult, and who of course comes in handy when Leah needs to figure out exactly what she's dealing with, detail by detail, contingency by contingency. James McGowan gets the honors of this thankless role, playing "Rowan Dove," a movie-authorly name if ever there was one.
But when the film isn't leaning on establishing rules and background explanations, its focus is somewhere else entirely. Everything ultimately boils down to the relationship between mother and daughter, and the loss that seemingly broke them both and pushed them apart. At the film's best, there's a rawness to their interactions - namely one particularly cruel moment in which Mrs. Reyes resentfully screams about Leah's face being a constant reminder of her late husband. "Sometimes I wish I could just rip it off." Though Holden gives a committed performance, the film itself doesn't always get a good handle on the character. She's so aggressively reproachful, even vicious, in one scene and then completely loving and understanding the next. The volatility is clearly intended, but it's so wildly erratic that there's clearly something much more serious going on (mental illness, addiction, some other kind of chemical imbalance), only the filmmakers don't have the time or inclination to delve very far into the character's life or psyche. At times it seems like the character is just being manipulated to serve where the story wants to go already.
But Pyewacket survives its hiccups, deftly navigating the gulf that has emerged between two characters who can no longer connect, eventually bringing them all too close in what amounts to a cruel distortion of their fleeting resentments.