By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä and Jani Volanen
Directed by Hanna Bergholm
Written by Ilja Rautsi
“I hope your everyday life is as lovely as ours,” says Mother (Sophia Heikkilä) early in HATCHING, and when you hear a line like that, you know that life is destined to be quickly and decisively upended, even if you’re not watching a horror film. HATCHING is definitely in the fright genre, while it’s also a fable about motherhood and growing up, and it works on both levels.
I’ve been looking forward to this movie ever since Finnish director Hanna Bergholm and producer Mika Ritalahti previewed it under the title BIRDS OF A FEATHER during the 2018 Frontières Co-Production Market at Montreal’s Fantasia festival. HATCHING (a world premiere at the current Sundance Film Festival that IFC Midnight releases April 29) pays off on both the aesthetic and visceral promises of that presentation. Mother speaks that line as part of her “Lovely Everyday Life” blog, in which she celebrates her and her family’s blissful suburban existence as if doing so can simply will it into actually happening. That facade is literally crashed in the opening minutes, as a crow invades their house–a jet-black intruder into the meticulous cream-and-pastels environment–and causes all kinds of damage. Twelve-year-old Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) safely captures the bird, but Mother shows this intruder no mercy and orders Tinja to dispose of the little avian corpse.
Mother, played by Heikkilä with unremitting self-possession, ruthlessly controls all of Tinja’s life, in fact–most notably her pursuit of gymnastics, passive-aggressively pressuring the girl toward perfection, even if it causes her bodily harm. Solalinna, though this is her first acting role, gives a deeply layered performance as Tinja struggles to please her mom while feeling the first stirrings of nurturing herself–from an unlikely source. That dead crow leaves behind an attractively colored egg that she feels compelled to bring home, “nesting” it in her bed and then a large teddy bear. She now has something to show the care she doesn’t get from Mother, though the ever-growing egg seems to feed on the abrasion wounds on her hands, and hatch from contact with Tinja’s tears.
What comes out of it sends HATCHING into full-blown creature-feature territory, even it as retains an evocative metaphorical level. This freaky-looking being is brought so convincingly to life by effects supervisor Gustav Hoegen that you can accept Tinja’s maternal feelings for her odd “child,” albeit one that requires a gross feeding procedure and has to be hidden from others in the house. Meanwhile, Tinja meets her new neighbor Reetta (Ida Määttänen), who seems nice but soon becomes a key rival in Tinja’s upcoming gymnastics competition, and Reetta has a dog that doesn’t seem to like Tinja, and Bergholm and scripter Ilja Rautsi effectively tease our expectations of where those subplots are going.
The same goes for a cute baby introduced in the second half, as part of a side story involving Tero (Reino Nordin), a handyman with whom Mother carries on an affair that she barely hides from her grinning wimp of a husband (Jani Volanen) or from Tinja. In fact, one of the more subversive ideas explored by Bergholm and Rautsi is that Tinja might actually benefit from having the sympathetic, grounded Tero as a parental figure, as opposed to her two actual parents. Meanwhile, the creature begins to develop in ways that make it a doppelganger for Tinja, and an outlet for her repressed feelings, which sets the stage for significant bloodshed (with impressive makeup effects by double Oscar nominee Conor O’Sullivan).
There are numerous themes of adolescence, its trials and terrors running through HATCHING, and Bergholm keeps them all balanced while also allowing the horrific content to achieve full flower. Anchored by Solalinna, whose performance is always naturalistic no matter how outlandish the situations in which she becomes involved, the film addresses resonant real-life emotions through the prism of a bizarre genre piece. Life isn’t always lovely, and HATCHING offers a worst-case scenario of the wages of attempting to make it so.