“FEBRUARY” (TIFF Film Review)Movies/TV,News,Reviews Phil Brown
As chilly as the title suggests and surprisingly subtly mounted, FEBRUARY is a disorienting and bizarre twist on some familiar horror tropes. The first feature by Osgood Perkins (son of PSYCHO icon Anthony Perkins) takes a few concepts that will be familiar to many genre aficionados, then twists them through odd narrative knots and laces them with unexpected dramatic weight until the film begins to feel like something new. It’s tough to say how strong this story would be without it’s unconventional telling, but thankfully, things turn out devilishly well as it is.
Given the deliberately secretive, non-linear structure, it’s difficult to discuss FEBRUARY without giving too much of the story away. Perkins gradually introduces us to three young women. The first is Lucy Boynton, who plays a confident and vaguely goth senior whose parents didn’t show up to get her before Christmas break (or at least that’s her story). The second is Kiernan Shipka, a nervous and nerdy freshman whose parents also don’t pick her up before the break, but with far more mysterious intent. Then there’s Emma Roberts playing a girl who seems to have left some sort of mental institution without permission before being picked up by two eerily calm parents (James Remar and Lauren Holly) whose own daughter was murdered years ago.
The story unfolds from each girl’s perspective, though not always in the order you may expect. Characters tend to speak softly and vaguely in a manner that seems awkward at first, but has a very specific purpose. Writer/director Perkins is playing games of misdirection and manipulation, dolling out information in ways that might feel confusing at the time, yet snap into place rather fascinatingly as the movie inches towards the finish line. The three lead actresses are all excellent and playing Perkins’ game of secret show and tell. They infect pregnant pauses with readings that could be interpreted a number of ways on first viewing, even though there’s a very clear throughline and destination tangled in amongst all of the chronology-hopping shenanigans.
It should also be noted that there is a supernatural presence in the movie (or, depending on your interpretation, maybe not). All the characters seem to be affected by it and one perhaps more than others. It’s something that hangs over the entire story, yet doesn’t really factor in until about halfway through thanks to Perkins’ narrative gymnastics. It’s a clever trick he plays, building his initial sense of tension, dread, and unease through a sense of mystery expanded beyond a natural point. Then as he begins to double back in the story and explain, he does so deliberately cryptically so that information comes in fits and starts that encourage multiple interpretations. It’s a clever way of contorting a pretty conventional story into something that feels oddly new.
Perkins is also fairly expert with mood, knowing how to build a bubble of tension and precisely when to pop it. He’s not afraid to go graphic when the time is right, yet primarily holds back, letting mood dictate and drive of the piece. Camera moves are slow and creeping, while compositions are crisp with just enough shadow to conceal the right secrets. The sound design is also remarkable, combining ambient noise and chilling electronic compositions into a symphony of dread. Even early on when viewers may feel deliberately dumbfounded, the sound always shivers up the spine and helps the filmmaker get away with some wheel-spinning.
Unfortunately, FEBRUARY ultimately feels more like a parlour trick than a carefully constructed horror flick. The experience of watching it the first time might be enthrallingly opaque, yet once all of the secrets are revealed and the tale is fully told, it’s undeniably fairly simple and conventional. The terror and pleasure of FEBRUARY comes purely from it’s telling, the actual content doesn’t add up to much as the arty aesthetic promises and it’s hard to imagine the film will hold up well to multiple viewings when the first half of the film will feel far more tedious than mysterious. Still, for a first feature, FEBRUARY is really damn accomplished. Osgood Perkins certainly has a sense of style, a knack for working with actors, and an unconventional approach to storytelling. Hopefully next time, his story will be a little more worthy of his efforts.