BY: DAKOTA DAHL
Starring: Keegan Connor Tracy, Jett Kline, Sara Canning and Stephen McHattie
Directed by: Brandon Christensen
Written by: Brandon Christensen and Colin Minihan
Digital Interference Productions
Children with invisible friends is something that is incredibly creepy on paper and that we tolerate in the adult world. Kids are just allowed to talk to someone who everyone else knows isn’t there, but if you pull that kind of stuff as a grown up, you get some serious side eye. So, working off the fact that children with invisible friends are one of the most bizarre aspects of raising children (I had multiple invisible friends growing up, and my parents constantly remind me of how creepy it was) the movie Z should put you ill – and especially parents – at ease.
The film opens with the seemingly idyllic life of a mother, Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy, FINAL DESTINATION 2, WHITE NOISE), a father, Kevin (Sean Rogerson, GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION) and their precocious little son Joshua (Jett Kline, THE BOY, MANNY DEAREST.) Things seem pleasant enough, with the family having the normal ups and downs, with an overall air of happiness. Joshua shows an aptitude for being imaginative, which is how we are introduced to the titular Z, his new best and invisible friend.
I should take a quick aside to say that I am not a huge fan of child actors, as I find they distract from the narrative. For every Osment or Culkin, there’s 100 kids that got the role because their parents know the director. That said, Jett Kline does his role believably enough, and his screen time quickly diminishes to focus on the madness surrounding Elizabeth, who quickly picks up any slack her co-stars left. She really shines as a beleaguered mother, organically switching from brimming with energy to raise her child to running out of energy and patience, something I think most parents will empathize with.
After we are introduced to Z, who is somewhat possessive, secretive and demanding (he only drinks 2% milk, that monster) we also learn that Joshua is being suspended from school indefinitely. It turns out that he has had a series of run ins with other children at school, using foul language and even attacking them, and protective father Kevin has been hiding this from his wife. Family tensions mount.
Enter child psychologist Dr. Seager, who commands the attention of everyone through the sheer force of being the awesome Stephen McHattie (PONTYPOOL, WATCHMEN.) Unfortunately, he sends them away saying that Joshua is just being a normal boy (he’s not) and that he doesn’t think the boy needs medication or further therapy (he does.) Seriously, as wise and nurturing as McHattie makes the good doctor seem, he doesn’t really follow up with a kid who is clearly showing a tendency towards inappropriate violence.
Things quickly devolve, with no children wanting to play with Joshua anymore, which further leads to his isolation. This makes Elizabeth reach out in desperation to one of her mom friends, who explains that the kids are afraid of Joshua. This offers up my favorite scene of the movie, that I do not want to spoil, so I’d recommend watching it for this scene alone – it shocked me to me desensitized core. Seriously, this is my favorite jump scare of the year, and I fucking hate jump scares.
Predictably, Z begins to make himself more well known to the mom, and when she shares her fears with her almost absentee husband, he is insultingly dismissive. Both Z the movie and Z the character thrive and feed off the poor decisions of the adults, who further the plot with simple inaction.
Without giving away the landslide of bizarre yet compelling events, we learn that Z is more than Joshua’s invisible friend, without relying on the tried and true trope of him being a ghost or demon. He’s something much more personal and wholly unpredictable. The film also ends on an ambiguous but ultimately sad ending, which I loved.
Director Brandon Christensen (STILL/BORN, BLACK ICE) manages a dizzying juxtaposition between the serene suburban dream the family has and the touch that Z leaves upon them. There is a massive mural on Joshua’s wall of the invisible beast that genuinely looks other-worldly, and the few glimpses we do get of Z when he is well and truly summoned give a good scare, especially considering the budget. Christensen knows what to show, what to withhold, and fills in the blanks just enough visuals to give a sense of a concrete vision.
Sadly, the evil chill of Z is made lukewarm by some meandering plot elements. We are shown Elizabeth’s mother getting increasingly sick, and given a sense that she and her sister Jenna (Sara Canning, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES) resent her, but for what isn’t made entirely clear. This drama seems to exist solely as a way to introduce old family tapes and the old family home. It slows down the intensity to a crawl, which would be fine if it felt compelling or emotional, but instead it feels tacked on.
Another element that drop kicks you out of the action is the soundtrack which aims at over the top ominous In the style of INSIDIOUS, but cues in far too early, which only acts to telegraph the coming dread, instead of amplifying it. The lack of appropriate timing and the inability to sense the intensity of the scene is distracting at best and comical at worst.
The low elements of Z aren’t enough for me to not recommend it, since it has some seriously awesome kernels of horror inside of it. And again, I’m going to predict right now that the jump scare is going to freak some people out. Anyone who has had an invisible friend, raised an odd child or simply likes watching normal families get mercilessly attacked by unseen entities will find something to enjoy here.
Z will be having its Toronto premiere at the Blood in the Snow Film Festival on Sunday, November 26th.