Thursday, February 7, 2019

In short: The Perfect Host: A Southern Gothic Tale (2018)

Single mom Julie (Suilma Rodgriguez) and her little daughter Ellie (Andersyn Van Kuren) have returned to the small Southern town she grew up in and left after some sort of minor public melodrama to tie up the affairs of her newly dead grandmother. The relation they were initially supposed to stay at throws them out the evening after the funeral, and Julie really doesn’t want to spend the night in her grandma’s old house. Fortuitously, Julie has just met an elderly lady named Frances (Janis Duley) at her grandmother’s grave (in the middle of the night). Frances was an old friend of her grandmother’s, and she would be just too happy to have Julie and Ellie sharing her mansion until Julie’s business is sorted.

Her husband Harold (Thomas Herod Jr.) clearly sees things a little differently, and if looks could kill, Julie’d probably fall down dead the minute she meets him. However, Harold might be vocal, yet he’s clearly not having a say in the matter.

The house is certainly big and beautiful, but it’s also eerie. Particularly at night when strange noises and drafts occur on a regular basis, but even by day, the place feels and acts, well, haunted. But that’s not the worst about the new living situation, for the longer Julie and Ellie stay, the more Julie suspects that Frances has something sinister in mind for her daughter.

Usually, I am a friend of movies that take their time to build characters, place and mood before things like a plot develop. Derrick Sims’s The Perfect Host certainly is such a film, but it never convinces me that all its quietness and slowness really go anywhere that needs quite as much build-up. The climax, despite concerning some theoretically shocking things is terribly underplayed, seemingly going out of its way to not feel too threatening or emotionally big, which isn’t really an approach I connect with the Southern Gothic as a style and genre. I don’t argue the film’s Southern-ness (at least not from the very different part of the world where I’m living), but the Gothic really needs elements that are bigger than life rather than the naturalistic small town malaise the film delivers.

In fact, the best scenes here all concern Julie’s attempts to avoid her past, and her fraught connection with her former boyfriend Jonathan (Chase Ryan Jeffery), who may or may not be Ellie’s father. It’s the small day-to-day stuff where the film’s strengths lie, where its quietness and slowness seem appropriate and meaningful, and where Sims demonstrates a great talent for the minutiae of human interaction. The (perhaps) supernatural elements feel more like an afterthought that is neither effective nor seems terribly well connected to the naturalistic elements of the film, and I’m honestly unsure why this isn’t simply a film about Julie coming to terms with her past.

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