starring Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, James Remar
written and directed by Oz Perkins
by Walter Chaw Osgood Perkins's hyphenate debut February is haunted. It plays like a boarding-school version of Rob Zombie's extraordinary Lords of Salem, coloured by the same sadness and sense of inevitability and doom. Like it, February features a female protagonist cast adrift in a mostly-empty building, waiting for something to take her away--to Heaven or to Hell, it's not clear. Not clear, either, if there's much of a difference at the end of the journey. Here it's Kat ("Mad Men"'s Kiernan Shipka), who has a terrible dream one night that her parents aren't going to arrive to take her home from school over the mid-winter break and then wakes to find it come true. She's marooned there with two guardians and a Heather, the beautiful Rose (Lucy Boynton), who's engineered her own abandonment, the better to spend an extra week with a boy who may have knocked her up. February is obviously about young female sexuality, locating its girl heroes right there, teetering on the cusp of still calling out to their mothers when they're hurt. And it's about grief. Grief for the passing of innocence to experience, literalized in the loss of parents and the desire for their surrogates. It wonders what would happen if Rosemary's baby were a girl, and met her real father for the first time as a young woman going through puberty. It's a lovely metaphor for the sensual horror of that transformation, for the little deaths that separate children from their parents, literally or figuratively.
Perkins splits the film into three parts, each titled after one of the girls: Kat, Rose, and Joan (Emma Roberts), who we meet on the road, hitching a ride with a bickering couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) and doing her best to tamp down some pretty unpleasant flashbacks. Her coat is too thin. She wonders why there's a bouquet of flowers in the backseat. Later, after Joan has a shower in a hotel room the couple's secured for her, the father comes in and sits on a chair while she's on a bed in just a towel. All they do is talk, but the moment is fraught. Dangerous. Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock provides an interesting analogue: fast-ripening little girls lost, wilting in an arid environment. Joan's storyline converges with the other two eventually, but not in the way that you'd expect and not even in the way that most have read it. For me, what the film suggests is that young women need a father figure for very particular purposes and will attach to them whomever the subject, however great the risk. It also suggests that the world is a horrible, malicious place and parents are only able to hold it at bay--imperfectly at that--for a short period of time, so it's probably a bad idea not to teach that Eden was a lie.
The first two-thirds of the film are filled with rumour and innuendo--sexual, certainly, in Rose's situation and in the implication that the spinsters left responsible for the marooned girls are hairless, infertile, and presumably scions of Satan. The last third is an unusually satisfying payoff nonetheless steeped in ambiguity. The final shot, following a five-minute wordless sequence, is extraordinary in its beauty and patience. Emma Roberts had never really crossed my radar before this; she carries the epilogue, which I've thought about every day since. February would make a fine triple-bill with Weir's film and Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. Perkins, son of Anthony Perkins, has said this film is an evocation of his experience of losing both of his parents in close proximity to one another. (His brother, Elvis, provides the quiet/loud "white noise" score for the film.) The picture very much conjures the hallucinatory dislocation that immediately follows loss. The morning my father died, I went to the supermarket and was stunned that no one seemed to know the world was different today. Shipka is brilliant as the sympathetic Kat. A dinner sequence during which she's asked to say grace is remarkably underplayed for what it is--and her final entreaty in the film, "Don't go," states February's themes with the weight of an alien footfall on the top step.
February is brilliant stuff. It joins David Robert Mitchell's It Follows as key recent horror films about a girl's passage into womanhood. It takes standard horror conventions (the coven in the girl's school, demonic possession, arcane rites and rituals) and subverts them, allegorizes them, raises them from low art to high. It burrows into the subconscious and lingers there. Lauren Holly's Mother character delivers a long monologue that ends with "I can't even see you"--and rather than being too "on the nose," it speaks to volumes, depths, of mourning and despair. The movie is about how perception is tenuous and prone to perversion; how there are certain junctions in your life where you're most vulnerable to displacement and instability. Perkins uses his environments to wonderful effect. He closes his characters in, suggests swaddling heat and isolating cold, and watches what happens to all the pieces as they're subjected to varying, vacillating extremes. I love a phone call that Kat gets, one of many, where a voice tells her that her parents aren't coming. I love it because she answers it "Mommy? Dad?" February is a chronicle of loss. It's scary because loss is scary. It's poignant because it understands that it's scary enough to explain all the sorrows of the world.