If there’s one thing Australia can do well, it is: be scary. International folk think we’re a hotbed of spiders, snakes and drop bears, and that we’re liable to get kicked in the face by a kangaroo as soon as we walk out our front doors. What The Loved Ones shows is that it’s not the wildlife we should be afraid of, but also teenage girls who like to wear pink. Though I could have told you that years ago.
Teenager Brent (the preppily named Xavier Samuel, who was vampire ringleader Riley in Eclipse) is living a typical schoolkid existence: he motorboats his girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) in her Volkswagen Beetle, listens to hard rock, and fights with his mum. What is less typical is that he’s trying to cope with the car accident that took his father’s life six months before, and in that respect, he resorts to cutting, and spends his afternoons either in the darkness of his room, or searching for release in the dangers of the Australian landscape. When he is asked to the school dance by the slightly awkward Lola (Robin McLeavy), he turns her down; he’s kind enough, but it wasn’t the answer she wanted. And as Brent listens to his iPod and broods in the bush with his dog, Lola’s dedicated dad (John Brumpton) does what any father of a slighted girl does: he knocks Brent out, chucks him in the back of his ute, and hoofs it back to his place so Lola, decked out in a pink frock and matching shoes, can get the night she wanted so badly. And while Brent’s best friend Jamie (Richard Wilson) enjoys a typical dance with the hottest black-wearing girl in school—the glum Mia (Jessica McNamee)—by smoking a buttload of pot and embarrassing himself trying to impress her, Brent himself is dealing with drills, knives, hammers and the very real chance of a lobotomy, all underneath a disco ball in the kitchen of one of the creepiest families you’ll ever see on film.
It’s an authentically Australian movie without being throw-another-shrimp-on-the-barbie ocker. The landscape is that kind of local country you could find just at the end of the train lines; the house interiors could be any of your friends’ homes; when in the school grounds, the lockers could be yours from year eleven, all scratched up from your combination lock grating against it. I am obviously biased in this sense, being from Victoria where this was shot, and possibly even in the neighbourhood—the end credits thank the Whitehorse City Council (where I live now) and the Yarra Valley City Council (where I used to as a kid.) Heck, when the credits rolled, I realised I actually knew two people in the crew as well. The Loved Ones portrays Australian life convincingly without being cheesy or overdone. (Though when Lola’s father hammers one message home to Brent, he does snarl, “That’s for the Kingswood.”)
Half of the movie is spent in Lola’s kitchen, claustrophobically trapped by her and her father, surrounded by glitter and sparkle, and with Brent attached to a chair and wearing a snappy suit. Those scenes are truly, utterly scary. The two, and a very quiet third house guest, are so completely unnerving with their insanity that they’ll undoubtedly be haunting my dreams. Lola, brought up by a father whose is clearly unhinged, has no moral issues with what she is doing. Her father is doing everything in his power to keep her daughter happy. There is a deeply disturbing undercurrent (actually, maybe just a current) of attraction between the father and his “Princess”, which will keep you just as squicked out as the mild torture-porn they inflict on poor emo Brent.
The other half of the movie takes you out of the devastation of the home and into the lives of others: Brent’s mother, as she waits for news of her son; Holly, as she waits in her party dress for her beau to come home; Jamie, as he bumbles his way through the night of his dreams. Jamie is really just there to alleviate the mood; one of the hardest scenes for me to watch was immediately followed by a riotous bit of slapstick comedy from the clumsy Jamie that literally had the audience coughing on their popcorn and laughing well into the next (probably inappropriate) scene. Rather than detracting from the tone of the film, it made it a much more enjoyable movie. There was a lot of humour for a horror movie, with Lola’s tantrums and glee overdone to the point of hilarity, while still—admirably—remaining scary. As the film goes into a glowing slo-mo play of Lola being crowned the queen of the dance with a pink paper hat from a cracker, it is an amusing yet chilling look into the headspace of poor deranged Princess.
The acting is top-notch, with the everyday teenagers spectacularly natural even as they are damaged; Brent bears his torture with the appropriate amount of screaming; Princess is bonkers but had you feeling sorry for her at the start of the movie, and survived her many close-ups looking perfectly like a five-year-old who didn’t get a lollipop at the supermarket; her father, flitting between proud, overprotective, eager to please and Candyman-scale terrifying, will have you scared of meeting any potential in-laws for decades to come. The sound engineering was so convincing in parts I wanted to cover my ears and run out screaming; composer Ollie Olsen’s metal soundtrack was also a perfect backdrop to the piece.
In summary: Meets Expectations, because I’d read a whole pile of glowing reviews and expected it to be good. It really is. The only things I didn’t like about it were that Princess looks alarmingly like the girl who does my eyebrows, and that everyone who was playing high school kids were all the same age as me, though I was completely convinced they were seventeen. But that’s just wrinkle-induced jealousy.