SXSW Review: The Loved Ones

By  · Published on March 17th, 2010

The Loved Ones

We all remember high school, right? For some of us it’s not a terribly distant memory and for others it’s so distant that it’s almost a past-life experience. Some of us were able to flourish and rule our microcosmic domains for four years while others managed to scrape by blissfully unnoticed. And then there are still others who look back on those years with the same intense dread as traumatized veterans flashback to their days in combat. Whether you served your four years as captain of the football team or stuffed in a locker, everyone has at least a couple of horror stories from high school. But I’m willing to bet none of you have a horror story quite like this one.

The Loved Ones is a teen romance that centers on a boy named Brent (Xavier Samuel). Brent suffers a great tragedy when his father his killed in a car accident and suddenly the carefree teen is transformed into a brooding, dark shell of his former self. He frequently flirts with the idea of suicide and a void is rapidly growing between him and his mother. The one thing that does seem to offer him a glint of happiness is his girlfriend Holly. As the two prepare for the end-of-year dance, Brent is approached by a shy, awkward girl named Lola who also asks him to the dance; an offer he respectfully declines. That polite refusal amounts to the biggest mistake Brent has ever made because, whether he wants to or not, he will be attending a dance with Lola. High school may be hell, but prom can be murder.

I loved this film (appropriately). It’s the first hardcore horror film I’ve gotten a chance to see at SXSW; granted I missed both Red,White, and Blue and Serbian Film. But the difference, from what I’ve gleaned about those other two films, is that The Loved Ones is decidedly more entertaining. The most severe violence in the film is tempered by moments of effective dark humor. There are moments of dark comedy in both the audacity of the violence employed and in a supplemental story about Brent’s geek friend taking the hottest, most dangerous girl in school to the dance. The b-story was like watching something by John Hughes’ evil twin; Hughes’ verbal frankness about teen sexuality taken to the next level.

As to the comedy in the violence, The Loved Ones wisely makes the torture bearable by pandering a bit to the horror crowd. In this case, pandering is not a bad thing because it makes more of an absurd spectacle out of Lola’s brutality so that, while we are cringing, we are enjoying the ride. The genius of The Loved Ones is that it knows how to use over-the-top horror elements to provide the necessary safety net for the tightrope walk between shock and entertainment. The dynamic of Lola’s family also seems like a pretty obvious reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so that should also be sure to please us horror geeks. The choice made by actress Robin McLeavy to play Lola with just as much childish glee as unsettling menace was superb. She’s evil incarnate but also a spoiled toddler in a teen-aged body. To us, she’s committing unspeakable atrocities but to her, it’s her birthday party and Brent is her new toy.

There’s a subtext here that may be intentional or may just speak to the universal nature of high school experiences; so universal they even exist in Australia. High school girls are among the most emotionally volatile creatures this side of fashion models. As a boy in high school, you have to be constantly walking on eggshells to avoid igniting the powder kegs of drama. Clearly I am speaking from my own high school memories, but I have a feeling this is not specific to high schools in Indiana. In the film, this point is emphasized by the fact that Brent is really nice to the shy, seemingly harmless Lola and still pays dearly for rejecting her but at all. This subtext is really just an exaggerated depiction of the instability of teenage emotional states…with stabbing. In the equal opportunity department regarding emotional paradoxes, I will say that I love the fact that Brent spends the first part of the film obsessed with suicide but does everything in his power to survive when actually facing death; kids, right?

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.