Expanded from a short of the same name by writer/director Jeremiah Kipp (Black Wake), Slapface is about the relationship between an alienated young boy and a monster – but it’s also a subtle, affecting, strange drama about moral quandaries and kids who have to cope with things adults would have trouble handling.
Brothers Lucas (August Maturo) and Tom (Mike Manning) have lost their parents, which leaves the older Tom as a parental figure – though his inclination is towards being a slacker barfly/horndog, picking up only odd days of work, mooching around with his new girlfriend Anna (Libe Barer) and only half-listening to well-meant warnings from the Sheriff (Dan Hedaya – pulling off the he-always-seemed-old character actor trick of now looking twenty years younger than he actually is). The brothers bond with the title ritual, inexplicable and even shocking to outsiders but purging to them – but Lucas is left to his own devices most of the time, and takes to wandering in the woods, where he’s repeatedly picked on by two older girls, twins Donna (Bianca D’Ambrosio) and Rose (Chiara D’Ambrosio). He’s also scorned by Moriah (Mirabelle Lee), who is sort of his girlfriend when the twins aren’t around and part of their bullying clique when they are – though she tries to mitigate their physical brutality by deflecting it into dares or challenges … like venturing into the spooky old house that’s reputedly the lair of the witch-like Virago (Lukas Hassel), who has been picking off kids in these here parts for years.
The Virago latches onto Lucas, to the extent that this could almost be one of those films with a last-reel what-really-happened montage revealing that the boy is responsible for all the violence carried out by the monster … only Kipp doesn’t make things that easy or comforting for those wanting a rational explanation. One remarkable thing about this film is the way that it feels absolutely real as a story of troubled kids in a bleak stretch of America but still finds room for a seven-foot-tall, hook-nosed, face-in-shadow apparition who comes across as a realistic reboot of every wicked witch in the cartoon canon. Lacking parents, Lucas finds some sort of mother – but when she’s let loose, it’s likely that she’ll do permanent damage to everyone around him by acting on his irritated, quickly-taken-back wishes when upset with people and even by jealously striking at possible rival presences – especially female – in his life. The film has a feel for the abandoned regions, sketching in its invented lore and giving us a new, yet familiar monster presence.
Moriah is a brilliantly-conceived and written character, seesawing between affection and cruelty in a horribly human manner – young Maturo and Lee are terrific in their scenes together. Indeed, Kipp does a great job of writing all round, exploring the complicated mix of dysfunction and practical love that brings the brothers together in mutual pain and yet spills over into tragedy for everybody else. A strong best-of-the-fest contender.