By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Keegan Connor Tracy, Sean Rogerson, Jett Klyne
Directed by Brandon Christensen
Written by Brandon Christensen, Colin Minihan
Produced by Digital Interference Productions, Hadron Films
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Director Brandon Christensen is one to watch. Since seeing Still/Born, his follow up film has been high on my must-see list; and I’ll admit, with my expectations being as high as they were I was a little nervous going into what has to have been my 500th “kid gets demonic imaginary friend” movie that he wouldn’t be able to show me anything I hadn’t seen before. In the end, Z did more than enough to differentiate itself from its predecessors, turning a tropey “oh my god, my kid’s gonna kill me” setup into a story about alienation and my favorite topic, generational trauma.
Z follows Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy), Kevin (Sean Rogerson), and Josh Parsons (Jett Klyne) as they attempt to figure out typical suburban family life. Josh is a rather lonesome kid; few of the other kids will play with him, especially since he got a new imaginary friend named Z. Z is making him curse, threaten to attack the other children, and talk about dismembering animals; can’t imagine why none of the other kids want to play with him. So Elizabeth takes Josh to see Dr. Seager (Stephen McHattie), who tells her that to make Z go away, she’ll have to step up and be the friend he doesn’t have. Only when she tries, Z gets jealous. As boogity boogity bullshit starts to happen around the house, Elizabeth gets reminded of her own past, Josh gets jealous of how interested his new imaginary friend is in her, and Z gets more and more possessive of his new friends.
“Z is the personification not only of Josh’s anger and loneliness, but the alienation and isolation of kids throughout the generations.”
Z plays out at first like a lot of other movies in the “weird kid sees monsters” genre: Josh is a lonely, alienated kid who (we assume) creates Z to deal with his loneliness, and Z pushes him to act on his worst impulses. It’s a tale-as-old-as-time formula that reflects the experience of a great many kids who never quite manage to fit in at school, and don’t have the support they need at home: Josh could very much be read as an “at risk” kid, and Z a physical manifestation of angst that can (and does) turn dangerous. But as the film goes on, we start to realize that Christensen is actually trying to explore something else. Without spoilers, this film digs into one of my favorite themes in horror, cross-generational trauma. Anna didn’t exactly have the best childhood either, and her experience (in some ways) mirrors Josh’s without her recognizing it; she would like to forget the past (and tries her hardest to), but it continues to come back to haunt her and impact her family in ways she never could have predicted. Again, without spoilers, Christensen repeats what I’m starting to see as a trend of having his main character spiral into themselves, locking themselves into a room with their trauma and facing it down with… mixed results.
Another trend that continues from Still/Born is the EXCELLENT creature design. Z takes more than one “form” over the course of this film, and all of them were fucking terrifying; we’re talking drawings coming to life, skeletal men standing in corners, withered women popping out of bathtubs. And that’s not even everything this film will throw at you. A couple beats are borrowed from Lights Out, but used extremely effectively, and there’s one scene at the 30-minute mark that had an effect similar to a certain scene from Hereditary. Nobody is safe in a Brandon Christensen story, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay him. Keegan Connor Tracy is excellent in the main role, perfectly portraying a beaten down middle class mother at the films outset and then rapidly descending into a degenerated state near the end of the film. The A and B stories, which at first seemed miles away from one another, are revealed to be one and the same by the film’s climax, and the way it all comes together won’t satisfy those who like happy endings; but for the rest, it should prove suitably sobering and properly shocking.
Z is an admonition, a warning to modern day parents to beware a condition that has become all too common in a world where it’s too easy for parents to stay busy and easier for kids to remain disconnected. Alienation, isolation, whatever you want to call it, can be dangerous. The generational component to this film is what makes it the most interesting, because it suggests that these experiences are by no means new; many people who are now parents have felt what it is to experience that kind of isolation, and that means that collectively there is an obligation to spot it, to try and resolve it before it becomes a Z-like problem. I’m giving Z a 9 out of 10. It reminds me quite a bit of The Babadook in that it deals with a modern problem in a fresh and innovative way and isn’t afraid to go to the darkest places imaginable to properly explore it. It’s more than worth a watch and cements Brandon Christensen as one of the more exciting directors working in modern horror today.
Keep releasing them Brandon. I’ll be here for the next one too.