Saturday, September 15, 2018

Lost Child: The Infernal Ozarks

The Ozarks have not had much luck in film and television. Generally, the mountainous plateau is portrayed as a place that combines the worst of the old world and contemporary society. There you will find all kinds of spooky old timey magic practiced, as well as meth. For a recently discharged veteran, it also happens to be home, but for her that is not a point in its favor. The land of Winter’s Bone gets a similar sort of treatment this time around, but there is more empathy than usual in Ramaa Mosley’s Lost Child (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Janella “Fern” Sreaves has come “home,” but she still carries part of the war with her. We can tell, because her aversion to guns is quite atypical for the region (and also for her former profession). She returns to the grim duty of her father’s funeral, but for her it is really a matter of paperwork. She would like to patch things up with her recidivist brother Billy, but he holds fast to his misplaced grievances.

That is all very frustrating for Sreaves, but par for the course. Things start to get weird for her when she finds a waifish boy shivering in the woods. Rather awkwardly, the local social worker happens to be her homecoming hook-up, Mike Rivers. Picking up on her own foster kid history, Rivers guilts Sreaves into sheltered the polite Cecil, at least temporarily. However, as soon as she welcomes him into the cabin, she starts feeling ill and her hair suddenly starts graying. Folks start whispering about Cecil and some even warn her outright. Surely, he must be the Tatterdemalion, a life-force-consuming demon that lives in the woods, until some naïf invites it into their home.

What is really creepy about Lost Child is not the is-he-or-isn’t-he question. It is the fact that so many people truly believe there are demons lurking in the woods, here in the present day. You do not even need demons when there are people burning trees to get the evil spirits out. Nevertheless, Mosley nicely maintains a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty regarding Cecil’s true nature—and perhaps the nature of our world as well. Without a doubt, Lost Child represents a quantum leap improvement over her previous film, the vacuous mishmash, The Brass Teapot. This is a gritty, emotionally intelligent film that has a strong sense of place, geographically and culturally.

Leven Rambin is terrific as Sreaves. If you want an example of “strong but vulnerable,” she delivers to a “T.” Fortunately, neither Rambin or Mosley overplay Sreaves’ PTSD, forgoing the typical twitching and night terrors. Instead, it is something more matter-of-fact that she will have to struggle to overcome. Rambin also develops some nice romantically ambiguous chemistry with Jim Parrack’s Rivers, who could be the manliest social worker ever seen in a serious drama.

Watching Lost Child brought to mind Robert Love Taylor’s yet-to-be-properly-appreciated novel Blind Singer Joe’s Blues. They both usher us into a world where “hants” and infernal ones have a palpable effect on people, regardless whether they are real or not. Recommended for fans of Southern Gothic at its most hardscrabble, Lost Child is now playing in New York, at the Cinema Village.