Long before Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) discovers she is pregnant, the young Brit has reason to worry about her kind boyfriend Ben’s (Edward Holcroft) genetic and genealogical contributions. Ben is wonderful, but his family — rich estate dwellers, no father, a high-strung mother, and a weirdo “stepbrother” Ben can’t stand — are not quite right. There’s the desperation his mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw) displays whenever Ben comes around, the overly solicitous way that interloping sort-of sibling Thomas (Jack Lowden) does everything, the sense the family estate seems bent on holding them all together. Charlotte doesn’t even know if she wants to be a mother, but maybe it will be okay if she and Ben can break free of the oppressive English countryside he was born in and make their way, as planned, to a fresh start in Australia.
That’s not to be. In his elegant and unsettling feature directorial debut, “Kindred” director Joe Marcantonio (who wrote the film’s script with Jason McColgan, also making his feature debut) lays out an intricate, if familiar gaslighting scenario that still has plenty of fresh drama to mine. After an unforeseen tragedy takes Ben, Charlotte — still pregnant, still unnerved by it — is hustled off to Margaret’s sprawling country estate, where both the matriarch of the fractured family and her groveling stepson vow to take care of Charlotte until she can deliver them an unexpected heir. So far, so scary, and it will only get creepier from there.
The film was originally titled “Corvidae” — the family name for a large classification of bird that includes crows, magpies and ravens, just like the birds that start haunting Charlotte through a decidedly unhappy pregnancy — hinting at the film’s interest in the way social structure plays out in groups. Margaret knows she and Ben weren’t on the best of terms, and even Thomas (with Lowden, who also produced the film, making a meal out of the creepy part) is hellbent on getting things right with Charlotte and her soon-to-be bouncing baby. But Charlotte, addled by all those weird birds and increasingly horrific nightmares, can’t shake the feeling that Margaret and Thomas aren’t interested in much beyond the baby, making her just a vessel to deliver the prize and then, well, who knows.
While the shape of “Kindred” is familiar enough — freaked-out pregnant lady, big scary house, sycophantic creepster, freaky mother, a whole mess of scary imagery — many of the shocks meted out by Marcantonio and his very talented cast still sting and surprise. The film stays grounded in Charlotte and her perspective, trusting her and her experience, not simply playing cheap “is she crazy?” games with its audience, even as the script layers on nifty complications and explanations. Lawrance’s performance is a marvel, and the actress brings empathy and strength to a complex character. Better still are the moments when Charlotte and Margaret go toe to toe, well-balanced sparring matches that allow both actresses to show off their chops while never overshadowing the characters they play.
Although it boils down to a battle between two very different mothers, the racial politics between Charlotte and her would-be family are never extensively mined — Marcantonio and McColgan said they wrote Lawrance’s part without a race in mind — and one gets the sense that Margaret would happily take on anyone she believes will bend to her will (which, we’re guessing, includes nearly everyone).
Elsewhere, Charlotte’s interactions with the people who should help her — from her own best friend to a seemingly kind nurse — take on a new charge as a Black woman in a mostly white community. A viral story from earlier this year (bolstered by a number of recent studies) dug into the bias that Black women who seek out medical assistance are often not believed when they explain their pain and their symptoms. In this elegantly plotted film, Charlotte’s experience in those circumstances are blunt and that gives the implications greater impact. No one, it seems, believes her, a twist that pains both Charlotte and her audience.
The craft and care extends to the film’s below the line work, and cinematographer Carlos Catalan uses spherical and anamorphic lenses to add refinement and creeping terror. Stunningly shot, “Kindred” is both lovely to look at and a bit foreboding, all the beauty surely masking something horrible, especially as the film moves into the estate’s more off-putting locations (and, of course, their attendant secret histories).
As that ickiness grows, so too do the film’s implications, and while Marcantonio and McColgan don’t offer a tied-up-tight ending, there is an inclination toward explaining certain elements that doesn’t jive with the wonderful atmospherics that feed its first half. Still, the imagery and impact of “Kindred” is impressive, and while it may not stick the landing, the path there is well worth flying.
IFC Midnight will release “Kindred” in select theaters and on digital and VOD on Friday, November 6.