Friday, 8 December 2017

Movie Review: Little Evil (2017)
The plot: Gary (Adam Scott), now married to Samantha (Evangeline Lilly), is the step-father of the very reserved and quiet Lucas (Owen Atlas). As he tries to win Lucas over, and converses with his friend Al (Bridget Everett) about her own issues being a step-dad, weird things start happening with Lucas right at the centre of them. Gary’s mission to be a supporting father is about prove even tougher than he first thought, as all signs point to Lucas being the Antichrist, and unless he is willing to make a terrible choice, the End Times may be right around the corner.

Adam Scott has never impressed me that much as a comedic actor. Maybe it’s because I still haven’t gotten around to Parks & Recreation yet, or maybe it’s because my most vivid memory of him as an actor is as part of the endlessly woeful Hot Tub Time Machine 2, but his whole straight-man routine never really clicked with me. And sure enough, his performance here as the blame target for all the weirdness going on is kind of underwhelming, but by film’s end, I will admit to being genuinely impressed with his performance. Not for the comedy, but for the sincere emotion he brings to the table. Lilly as the mother basically takes naiveté and pushes it as far as it will go, resulting in a performance that isn’t that bad on its own but ends up annoying because of the plain writing involved. Aside from one very nice badass mother moment at the end, she isn’t all that memorable.

Bridget Everett as Gary’s best friend Al is a rather perplexing casting choice, but that’s ultimately because of how normalized it is. It’s a lesbian ‘dad’ who is about as in her element in that role as it is possible to be, and the film doesn’t take time out to constantly make jokes about how weird that supposedly is. She’s basically the avatar for this whole film’s approach to subverting what is considered the norm. Sally Field works out okay as a rather standoffish Child Protective Services agent, Clancy Brown as a local preacher is a solid casting pick, and while Owen Atlas only really has “he’s a creepy kid who doesn’t talk” as his entire character for most of the film, his scenes with Scott can get very affecting at times.

Let’s talk about clichés for a bit, because there is something in this film that really sticks in my craw. I don’t know if this particular cliché sticks out for anyone else as much as it does for me, but man, does it irritating here. Like, to the point where it made me realize how much I hate that specific trend in the first place. As Lucas’ actions grow more destructive, whatever blame there is to be given is given to Gary. This is typical, honestly, but the idea of someone constantly getting blamed for shit they aren’t responsible for isn’t that funny. It can be quite dramatic, if used to highlight the unfairness of the larger world like with The Shawshank Redemption or every other courtroom drama in existence, but as something to laugh at? Maybe I’m just really goddamn soft but I don’t find the notion of innocent people taking the fall for others to be particularly funny. Misery may be a key ingredient in comedy but it works better if that misery is a direct result of a person's actions, not just them being in the firing line for someone else's. As a result, whenever that particular notion crops up, and it does so a lot throughout the first hour of this film, it’s less entertaining and more teeth-grinding.

Not to say that there isn’t a reason for such things to be happening, and this is where the film’s merit starts to make itself known. Stories about unsettlingly creepy children have likely existed for as long as we’ve had ways to describe children at all, doubly so for stories about inherently evil children. Initially, the film sets itself up as a riff on The Omen, the idea that a literal spawn of Satan. Where the comedy comes in, as much as it doesn’t really gel with my own tastes, is when the film juxtaposes that concrete idea with the general feeling that most parents have: They are a handful and, especially for step-parents, considering a child to be evil is rather easy. One of the main conceits that gets repeated is that children can never do anything wrong; it’s always an adult’s fault for their actions, particularly if said adult is a parent that the kid doesn’t like very much. It takes a very real fear amongst parents about the actions of their children and combines it with a well-trodden horror convention to create some rather interesting ideas. Most of the conversations concerning the Antichrist in this, rather than the usual earth-shattering gravitas of other works, discuss the child like he is any other kid who is acting out.

The reason for the juxtaposition, and its ultimate effect, honestly makes me fail to care about how much that one specific cliché bothered me while watching it. The thing about films like The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby or even A Nightmare On Elm Street is that, in order for the main antagonist to fit into that role, the film has to assume that nature is the only contributing factor to a child’s upbringing. If their father is the literal Devil or if they’re the bastard son of a thousand maniacs, it is their “destiny” to be evil. Stuff like this is why world-building in storytelling is important because, unless the world the story exists in is written specifically to prove those assumptions right, it doesn’t work. This film understands that, and by the time the final reel kicks in, it makes that knowledge loud and clear. It takes the initial perspectives on parenting and the difficulties built into the work involved and makes a statement about how no kid is born good or evil, regardless of their biological heritage. Hell, the reason why kids and especially teenagers act out as they do is because they want to rebel against their parental figures. They actively fight against the idea that they will end up like them. When all of this is mixed together, it results in the kind of genre satire that shows how truly antiquated the initial idea is, and how much it doesn’t really conform to reality. Yeah, actual demonic children don’t exactly conform to reality, but then again, neither is the notion that a child has no choice in who they become, or that caretakers have no influence on how a child develops.

All in all, this is yet another example of how 2017 is meant to kick expectations squarely in the daddy sack. What starts out as a rather grating and cliché-ridden take on the child Antichrist, at a neck-breaking pace, turns into a scathing breakdown of how much that very story concept has fallen behind the times. Through some genuinely solid acting from Adam Scott, a brisk sense of pacing and an incisive script that legitimately took me a while to truly appreciate as it unfolded, this film goes beyond just being a funny take on an old idea and becomes a remarkably astute takedown of an old idea. Like I said before, story clichés can be really bloody annoying, so films like this that actively question them are always a good thing. It ranks higher than Begum Jaan, as this film’s cred as genre subversion ends up outweighing that film’s cred as a piece of feminist cinema. However, since this film still ended up taking me a good amount of time to really get into, it falls short of The Great Wall, which had me gripped right from the start.

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