There’s darkness in discovering a parent is not always acting in the best interest of their child. It sparked the crisis that spun out Tony Soprano, and was the first colossal twist in Run. Sometimes, parents’ actions are unexplainable to the youth that trust them, and the disconnect can add fury to the coming-of-age tale. Hellbender, the story of a mother and daughter duo left in turmoil by maturity, adds depth to its scares by questioning a parent’s motives.
Izzy (Zelda Adams) has no reason to question her mother (Toby Adams). They’ve lived a secluded life in the mountains under the guise of Izzy needing protection. Izzy is sick and can’t be anywhere near other people. They’re never bored and spend time dressing up and playing in their band, H6LLB6ND6R, the result of a strong mother-daughter duo and fantastic musical drive.
But like hell, Izzy is a teenage girl, and the invisible shackles of her mother can only hold her for so long. One day, she wanders through the wooded area and meets Amber (Lulu Adams) and clumsily learns about young friendship. Finding herself a fish out of water, Izzy is just barely welcomed by the other teens who coerce her into taking a shot of tequila complete with a live worm. The staunch vegetarian initially refuses, but soon, guzzles back the wiggly vermin. More than just a gag reflex, Izzy has a strange reaction; a violent one that comes with supernatural powers and a blank stare.
Izzy returns home and both confesses to and confronts her mother. Scared, her mother admits she was never sick but that she is dangerous, and then takes her on a journey of discovery of her power. What sets off is some self discovery, breaches of trusts, and competing interests.
Hellbender’s story is a family affair, written by, directed by, and starring the Adams family. They’ve made multiple features together, and their fluidity and comfort are palpable. Yeah, Izzy and her mother look alike, but what’s more is their natural ability to play off each other as a mother-daughter duo in a real way. It’s one part their real-life relationship, and at least a few parts acting ability. There isn’t much to the feature by way of spectacle, mostly using interesting lighting and its setting, so the dynamism of their subtle work gives the story life.
“But aside from the wiles of its leads, Hellbender uses its budget well for visual style.”
But aside from the wiles of its leads, Hellbender uses its budget well for visual style. Using darkness and negative space creates discomfort and fear in a way reminiscent of Insidious’ The Further, and there are spliced-in scenes that would sit comfortable in episodes of Channel Zero.
But for all the subtle beauty in the film, it can’t rise above feeling like a micro-budget proof of concept. By now, the Adams’ are seasoned in the craft of filmmaking, and this feels sometimes like a stall in growth. It’s the sort of feature that might make you take down their names to see what they will produce next, but Hellbender is what’s next. The pacing is a bit off and feels like an idea that was stretched to feature length.
The story has some fun with its take on magic, explaining the sources of power, the history of this line of witches, and why its important to quell the urges. It’s not the typical version of witches and powered people in film, and I admire its willingness to forge its own path. Though, it had the opportunity to imagine the witchcraft as a stand-in for less accepted cultural quirks in new lands, but it lacked to depth to explore the allegory.
But more than anything, this coming-of-age tale is that of a mother’s warning and a teenage daughter. Knowing it was written by a real-life family is especially beautiful when you consider the reality of how many young women will shriek and not listen to their mothers, mothers who just lived these experiences, young women not accepting that. Many have tried to use witchcraft as an allegory for the women’s experience, and Hellbender does well enough with the premise.