Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Vertical Entertainment releases the film in theaters and on VOD on Friday, October 15.
Tucked inside its dazzling, old-fashioned opening credits, Carlson Young’s confounding “The Blazing World” offers an early glimpse of what’s to come. The film’s writing credits (Young and Pierce Brown) include the notation that the film was “inspired by Margaret Cavendish and other dreams.” Cavendish was a 17th-century English aristocrat, and a trailblazer: She was a scientist, a prolific playwright, and the author of the utopian sci-fi forerunner “The Blazing World.” Young seems to work from more than Cavendish’s singular work, also leaning into her own “dreams” and a hearty dose of surreal cinematic predecessors.
A talented young actress best known for her work on “Scream: The Series,” Young first approached the material in her 2018 short of the same name. Young shows real flair both in front of and behind the camera, as she also stars in this dreamy, odd thriller. She also has a knack for casting, with co-stars who include Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, singer Soko, and Udo Kier (being extremely Udo Kier).
Young has vision, that’s for sure, and the collection of influences and inspirations that dot “The Blazing World” run from “Alice in Wonderland” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” to “Coraline” and “Hansel and Gretel,” with a touch of the wacky 2019 social satire “Greener Grass.” When the film first opens, we meet cherubic young twins Margaret (Josie Fink) and Elizabeth (Lillie Fink). They live inside a sprawling mansion, but something is clearly very wrong. Their parents (Mulroney and Shaw) hate each other, and there’s much yelling and screaming and things being broken. Outside, there’s something even worse: Udo Kier, standing to the side of their swimming pool, beckoning the girls to follow him through a swirling portal.
Eventually, Lizzie falls sway to, well, something. It’s either that weird portal or the swimming pool next to it, but she drowns and dies and leaves Margaret alone with a ruined Winter family. Cutting to Margaret’s college years (now played by Young), “The Blazing World” finds the single twin still living in a world of beauty and disaster. Even her apartment looks like her family’s ruined manor, with crumbling walls holding up stunning sconces and a claw-foot tub set in the middle of a creepy bathroom. Margaret has never really left her family home, and it’s no wonder why: Nothing else is as thrilling or horrible as its memories.
The crux of her attachment is understandable, but “The Blazing World” struggles to bolster the emotion behind it. Margaret misses her sister, but the film offers that as a plain-faced assumption with little else to deliver it. That’s a big gap for a film that hinges on Margaret’s desperate, crazy belief that her sister is still alive in some other dimension.
None of this diminishes the visual power of the quest Margaret undertakes after returning home for a visit with her (still not doing great!) parents. Memories of Lizzie are everywhere, as we learn via multiple jump scares in which her face (or, for added nightmares, Kier’s) appear at random. What if Lizzie was really just taken into a portal, where Margaret can fetch her? “The Blazing World” is far more taken by the visuals that fuel the quest than the tripping narrative that gets us (and Margaret) to them.
For a first-time film on an indie budget, Young and her team offer something truly impressive. Margaret makes her way through all manner of locations, from a retrofitted family mansion (in the Kier-dimension, it’s filled to bursting with flowers both living and dead) to a desert shack that holds a literal key to her future. Backed by Isom Innis’ lustrous and foreboding score, the film’s imagination and production design is an eye-popping showcase for a rising director who clearly knows her aesthetic and how to push it to crazy ends. It’s an imperfect debut, but it holds thrilling promise for what comes next.
“The Blazing World” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section.
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