It’s all very clear… except when it’s not.
You might sense a bit of wishy-washiness in that statement — and that puts you smack-dab in the same boat as I am after completing a screening of the indie fantasy film Witch, directed by Vanessa M.H. Powers and based on the novella of the same name by Rebecca Little (who also adapted it for the screen). After performing well on the festival circuit, Witch is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Young Aima (Charlotte Eames) and her babysitter X (Katly Hong) spend their time together, playing make-believe. But when they go a bit too far into the game of “Witch,” lines of good vs. evil and reality vs. fantasy begin to blur. Along the way, they’ll meet up with an interstellar traveler named Arnold (Casey Hoekstra), some fairies at a rave and the titular, evil witch (her appearance certainly not out of place in someplace like Burkittsville).
I confess I was not a fan of this film… except when I was. Allow me to explain:
I’m more a fan of linear storytelling. I don’t need to be spoon-fed by any stretch of the imagination, but I need more than what Witch is offering. By the end, you (like me) will have some idea about what you’ve just experienced (it was far from boring), but the film doesn’t necessarily offer any concrete conclusions. As a film fan and a screenwriter, I like (and need) a little more of a traditional structure.
What I took away from the film was that the overwhelming powers of grief and loss of innocence will poison a person, and that it’s a difficult journey to overcome. To once again find a place of peace — a second childhood, if you will — requires embracing fantasy and make-believe, and just being light again. It’s possible… if you let go.
Visually, there’s no other way to describe Witch, other than a “mini-film festival” of wacky images, impressively created animation and puppetry, accompanied by indie music — akin to what you might see on Cartoon Network’s zaniest Adult Swim late night lineup. Seriously, if there is anything to recommend about Witch, it’s the visuals. That being said, the film relied far too heavily on multiple music montages.
Among the things I wasn’t as impressed with are the performances: as our lead character, Hong has a few organic and impressive acting moments (notably while on a swing set just prior to the film’s climax), but as a whole, it’s not an engaging performance. She’s got an interesting look — something akin to Gwyneth Paltrow — but sadly, not the chops of that particular Oscar-winner. At times, I felt she rolled the film on into “mumblecore” territory with her performance alone. She did not inspire me to follow along or deeply sympathize with X.
I hate to call out bad acting from a minor, but since little Aima is a secondary lead, I’ve gotta make mention of Ms. Eames. It wasn’t a terrible performance, but I never got past the utter amateurish work presented here. Yes, she’s a child — probably green in her acting life — but for such a central, important character, I needed more. I also want to spotlight Casey Hoekstra as Arnold (the captain of a spaceship at the center of the story), but in a good way. He’s goofy as the man-in-charge on his little craft, and every time he was on screen I was smiling and rooting for him.
Now, additional confusion in my reaction to the piece:
There’s a scene late in the film where three of the characters sit around a fire, discussing some important details about what the film might mean (again, probably open to interpretation), and I don’t hesitate to call these moments hypnotic. While the film is a chaotically visual delight, its most powerful scene involves just people, relationships, quiet and dialogue. Take note, filmmakers: your ultimate connection to your audience is through your characters and their relationships — not in camera tricks, visual gymnastics and quick-cut editing.
As X, her friend Wade (Leroy Kelly) and friend Erica (Elizabeth Rosa Houck) discuss their crisscrossing lives around a roaring campfire (where is this in the story’s timeline?), there is something genuine and touching here — nowhere in the film were the performances stronger — and while we don’t get those aforementioned concrete answers, this is still the most revealing moment in the film. Technically, I was most impressed by a gorgeous shot of the three in front of this fire: Wade in the foreground, beyond him, X and Erica in the background, beautifully lined up. It was exquisite, but you have to wade through a lot of whack-job visuals (a very good time) and a lot of stilted, inorganic “Renaissance Faire meets Haunted House” acting to get to some substance and depth in this glorious fireside chat.
When things do finally come around, scenes involving a cigarette and a burned-down house are a nice way to close things up; it’s a welcome continuation of the hypnotic quality of the campfire sequence.
Fantastic and inspiring production design, as well as delightful visual and practical effects and plenty of ideas with potential, can’t overcome mostly lacking performances and a story structure which is not my preference. To expound on the idea of “potential” — had there been a stronger cast at the film’s center, the esoteric ideas and fun visuals would have had a worthy partner-in-crime, allowing for a richer and more memorable indie film experience.