Film Review: The Babadook

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I just saw the new film, The Babadook, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. This is her first major film, and if her subsequent films are of the same quality, she can look forward to a long and successful career.

Having said that, this is a grim, trying film. It works as a piece of cinematic art, but I must say that, for me, it works less well as pure entertainment. Had it been released the day after Halloween instead of the day after Thanksgiving, I might have a different opinion.

A widow and her six year old son are confronted with a metaphysical threat when they find a children’s book in the boy’s bedroom and read it together during story time. This is the unique part of the film and it provides a lot of good tension and dreadful good fun. The rhymes in the book are very inventive and creepy. Ms. Kent should be applauded for that, since she wrote the script.

The performances are very good by all the cast members, although I reserve comment on the child actor who plays Samuel. If his performance tracked the director’s vision, then he was amazing. If not, then his performance detracts from the film. The first third of the film is mostly exposition on the relationship between a single mom and her son. The son has issues, but it’s not really clear from the performance whether the issues are inherent, or a function of the particular circumstances faced by mother and son. You never get the sense that they are on the same side. The character of Samuel is portrayed in a very unsympathetic manner for most of the film.

If that was the director’s intent, then it came off beautifully. But that was also, for me, the problem with the film. Without a rooting interest, you’re put through a series of frightening and dreadful scenarios, lacking in emotional balance. The cliché for horror movies is “Get out of the house!” But in those scenarios, you want all the good guys out of the house.

In fairness, the film avoided standard horror techniques in favor of a slow burn. But the lack of a rooting interest, for me, negated the artistic accomplishments. And the slow burn never had a satisfying resolve, in my opinion.

It’s hard to write a compelling story without a protagonist (a good guy, or a good girl). This film comes close to proving that wrong. There is no character in the film that comes across as more than marginally likable.

I’m sure there will be many people who will watch this film and love it. My review is just my opinion.

Oh, and don’t take young children to this movie. It is unrated and would be very disturbing to young children, especially those who are in non-traditional family situations. This film, if viewed by young children, would generate nightmares for years to come.

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