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Fantasia 2015 Review: Goodnight Mommy Is More Effective Than Abstinence

By  · Published on July 25th, 2015

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Fantasia International Film Festival 2015 runs 7/14–8/4. Follow our coverage here.

Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) are twins who spend their days playing, exploring the woods and testing each other’s strength with slaps and punches, but their fun comes to an end when their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns from the hospital. Their first glimpse of her in the shadows teases a Joker-like grin that reveals itself to be bandages as she steps into the light. She’s had facial surgery, and her face is obscured by gauze and bruising around the eyes.

And the boys aren’t entirely convinced it’s their mother.

She’s acting colder, crueler and treats Lukas as if he isn’t even worth acknowledging – “You know why,” she tells Elias – and the siblings soon decide to find out what happened to their real mother. They dig through photo albums for evidence having noticed that pictures have gone missing from the walls and even attempt to reach outside help, but it’s only when they bring their inquiries directly to the woman in the bandages that the truth is revealed.

It’s no exaggeration to say Goodnight Mommy is a film capable of preventing pregnancies. Show this in high schools, and more than a few young ladies will walk away determined to lock up their vaginas for good. More than just a feature-length infomercial on abstinence though, directors/writers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have crafted a cringe-inducing suspense thriller that delights in keeping viewers unsure where to rest their allegiance.

A vicious cycle erupts between the boys and their mom – they express suspicion, she acts erratically, they grow aggressive in their investigation, she becomes violent – and as the two sides battle it out viewers are kept up in the air as to who to believe, and the film manages to maintain that uncertainty all the way through to the end. There are layers at work here on both sides as both the boys and the mother are hiding secrets from the audience. They’re doled out slowly, sometimes directly and other times with far more subtlety, but the genius here is that as damning as some of these reveals are they point more towards a sad madness than guilt.

Viewers paying even minimal attention will have already assumed one such reveal from numerous hints throughout the film, but again, while it feels obvious it soon becomes clear that even if correct it doesn’t necessarily alter the boys’ suspicions.

Elements of a somewhat unhinged household abound including life-size photos on the wall, presumably of the mother who was once a TV personality, that are all blurry. The boys have a tank filled with giant, hissing cockroaches, share nightmares of the mother and develop some creative uses for SuperGlue. All is not well in this household.

As dark as the film gets – and it gets incredibly dark at times – it still manages moments of levity crafted to control tension before ratcheting things up again. A late sequence involving a pair of Red Cross volunteers is alternately absurd and nail-biting. It’s an attractive film too with cinematographer Martin Gschlacht balancing the stark whiteness of the house’s interior, carried on through white bandages and the boys’ t-shirts, with the more tangible colors spilling out around them.

All three leads do strong work here immeasurably aiding the script’s tightrope act between the opposing parties. We alternately fear and feel for the boys and their mom as the physical and emotional tug of war plays on, and the performances go a long way towards making our loyalty so indecisive.

Goodnight Mommy holds your attention hostage even as the urge to look away from the terror grows within you.

Fantasia International Film Festival 2015 runs 7/14–8/4. Follow our coverage here.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.