It takes a moment to acclimate to what we are watching. The owner of a ranch looks on as a group of rodeo clowns antagonize an animal. Though it’s not a bull they’re riling up, but a horse. And these aren’t actually rodeo clowns we’re watching, but protesters in a state of pandemonium. Cops in full riot gear tighten their legs stiffly around their steeds as they push forward into the mob. The pieces start to come together. These police officers are breaking in horses that will be ridden into scenes of civil unrest. This horse ranch will be our core location for the next two hours and these cops will be little more than small players in the backdrop of a unique circumstance that is a microcosm of the kind of city wide chaos they are preparing for. The chaos on this ranch will be that of a troubled little girl.
Katrin Gebbe is no stranger to genre, having just last year contributed to anthology horror project The Field Guide to Evil. So it should stand to reason why someone would enter this German language film, widely marketed as part of the “evil child” subgenre, with an expectation of scares to come. And while, make no mistake, there are horrifying moments aplenty in this picture, they feel grounded much more in reality than The Omen, or even Orphan. For every ritual and and scary symbol that pops up, the story counters with real life horrors like childhood abuse.
Nina Hoss (Phoenix, A Most Wanted Man) plays Wiebke a horse rancher raising a daughter, Niki, on her own. She seems to be managing all of her responsibilities well enough that she has decided to adopt a second child, Raya. Raya initially starts off appearing sweet and innocent but quickly starts to take a dark turn. Without veering too far into spoiler territory I will just say that Raya’s behavior ranges from disrespectful to disgusting to downright disturbing. It is a testament to young Katerina Lipovska’s talent that she is able to portray such a wide ranging performance and still leave us as viewers with a load of material to unpack and think about after the credits start to roll. A supernatural angle is teased throughout but I will leave it to your interpretation of events to decide whether it is ever definitively embraced.
What is embraced quite clearly is the realistic pain of dealing with a child as far troubled as Raya. I constantly felt sympathy and frustration for Wiebke’s plight and although I did not agree with all of her decisions, I always felt I could at least partially understand how she came to make them. The legend that the title refers to effectively illustrates the lengths a mother will go to make sure her chicks survive.
There are a few subplots that I felt could have been left out of the film to make for a more efficient run time. In particular, I felt that a “will they, won’t they” romance with one of the police officers could have been left out almost entirely without taking anything away from Wiebke’s uphill battle with Raya. Aside from those minor gripes though, this film is a superbly crafted exploration in trauma and catharsis, and I applaud NIGHTSTREAM for selecting it as part of their lineup.