Was it all because of me?
We don’t know what Lucas (August Maturo) did to find himself in the back of Sheriff Thurston’s (Dan Hedaya) car towards the beginning of Jeremiah Kipp‘s Slapface (an expansion of his short film), but it couldn’t have been anything good. I don’t say that because of what being there means. He obvious did something to warrant an “arrest.” I say it because of what Thurston tells Lucas’ older brother and guardian Tom (Mike Manning)—the boys survived the car crash that claimed their parents—upon taking him home. He mentions their abusive father and loving mother, putting literal faces to what we assume has been a long-held metaphor as far as what their futures hold. They’ve reached a crucial breaking point. Which path will Lucas choose?
Our expectations are, of course, that he picks his mother. That desire to hope for the best and believe in the innocence of children demands it. Seeing Tom drowning his own sorrows in the bottom of a beer every time he’s on-screen only helps to confirm this assumption because their dad’s place already appears to be taken. Kipp is dealing with more than just grief here, though. These boys are in pain and doing what they can to distract themselves from it, but the void that has been left in their parents’ absence isn’t only shaped by love. When you come from an abusive household, an outlet must also be found for the adrenaline and fear. Where do they go now that they’re no longer needed?
Who is Tom protecting Lucas from with their Dad being gone? Who does Lucas have to fight back against to build his strength? The answer to both questions is each other via a “game” called slapface. The two sit opposite the other when times are tough and take turns hauling off with increasing force. Partially cathartic to get their aggression out and partially a means of punishment, the sheer existence of the ritual proves how embedded violence is to their relationship. But is this enough? Tom is still on the road to becoming an alcoholic and Lucas still retreats from those his age as an outsider victimized by bullies. It all used to be noise—distractions from what they experienced at home. Now it’s everything. They can’t cope.
So, unlike a fantasy such as A Monster Calls wherein the young boy manifests a beast with which he can channel his rage and sadness, a monster gravitates to Lucas instead. Rather than feed his creation, it feeds off him just like the legends. There’s actually a song about the Virago (Lukas Hassel) that every kid in Fishkill knows from the time they were in diapers. Even Thurston can recite it on command. The rumors are that this ten-foot witch feeds on bad boys and girls in order to scare them straight, but that’s not quite the case when it crosses paths with Lucas. Yes, there are screams. Yes, there’s blood. But the Virago doesn’t eat him. It lets him go. Lucas then chooses to return, as friends.
Why? Because he needs one. Desperately. Mom is gone. Thurston, who we’re told was a role model to him, was driven away in part because Lucas’ mom was afraid her husband would hurt him. And Tom is buried under the responsibilities of adulthood now that he’s become the de facto parent—a situation made more complex when he starts seeing Anna (Libe Barer) and she inexplicably “moves in.” Add the fact that Lucas is tormented by twins (Bianca and Chiara D’Ambrosio as Donna and Rose) who in turn pressure his “steady” Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) into joining their abuse and he is shown as a man alone. Virago promises safety by sheer size alone. It’s when the witch’s actions escalate into murder that Lucas must worry who’s in control.
A big part of the bullying issue that gets missed a lot of the time is the reality that many bullies are themselves victims paying their pain forward. The worst things you can do is ignore this fact and assume it’ll work itself out. The truth of the matter is that the damage can be made permanent very quickly once they’ve tasted that sense of power for themselves. It doesn’t matter how big or strong you are either, an uncontrollable temper paired with ingenuity can prove deadly regardless of stature. And it often doesn’t matter if the people caught in the crosshairs are friends or foes. When that switch flips, reason is sent packing. Nuance evaporates to reveal a binary of black versus white. It becomes about survival.
Anna only wants to help, but she becomes the enemy if that help hurts those Lucas loves. Moriah only wants to belong, but she becomes no better than the twins if that inclusion sacrifices Lucas’ humanity. The same goes for Thurston too. All he cares about is the safety of these boys. The moment he explains they’ve become the biggest threats to themselves, however, he’s suddenly “against them.” And once the Virago is unleashed in Lucas’ name, there’s nothing on Earth that can stop it. The only reason it exists is to protect him. Whether real or imagined (as the personification of Lucas’ malice when caught in a sort of fugue state), there’s no leash to yank on. There’s only darkness. Kudos to Kipp for never pretending otherwise.
This can be a psychologically punishing film as a result, but that’s unfortunately sometimes the case in these scenarios. People die and it doesn’t matter if Lucas wanted it to happen or not. Saying “Sorry” isn’t going to cut it—not when his father beat him and not now. Because of its independent origins, though, Slapface isn’t merely asking you to accept its nightmarish subject matter for success. It also needs you to accept its budgetary shortcomings. Some can see past shaky performances and pacing (the rushed escalation of Anna’s involvement feels like her character lost a battle with the runtime) to let the message shine. Others can’t. I implore you to try because there are a ton of interesting ideas in play for those willing to look.