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The Monster is the latest flick from writer/director Bryan Bertino who made the harrowing home invasion flick The Strangers and the more recent found footage horror Mockingbird. In his latest film, he tells the story of young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) who is going on a road trip with her selfish, alcoholic mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan), to visit her father…a trip her mom knows Lizzy is not planning to return from. The two have a tumultuous relationship at best and Kathy’s reliance on booze and jerk boyfriends isn’t helping. When traveling in the rain on a deserted backwoods road, they have an accident and help will take some time to arrive. The worst is yet to come, though, as there is something stalking the woods they are now stranded in and it is large, vicious and very hungry.

Bertino creates tension long before his mysterious creature arrives by giving a harsh view of what life is like for young Lizzy with her mom. Just from the opening scene we see how disappointed and angry the young girl is with her mother, who is just too wrapped up in her own life to make a better life for her daughter. As the two travel, we are treated to some grim flashbacks of Kathy’s drinking and the abusive nature of the type of men she brings home. Lizzy’s young life is not a pleasant one and Bertino doesn’t shy away from letting us know it. This works well in both creating tension before the monster shows up and adding weight to the bonding of mother and daughter against the vicious predator. Any help that comes to their rescue meets the beast as well, so, it’s up to Kathy and Lizzy to fend for themselves. This is where the film really clicked. The creature itself is just a catalyst for the mother and daughter to rediscover how much they mean to each other and Kathy especially to think beyond herself and to her daughter’s well being…and it works. The real monster here is a mother’s selfishness and the hurt and anger it has given her child and thus the story is about how extreme adversity finally opens both their eyes as to how much they care about…and need…each other. Not to say this is all drama, as there is plenty of monster action and there are some intense, suspenseful and bloody attack sequences throughout. There is also some decent gore and the creature is delightfully rendered with old fashioned prosthetics. Sure, there have been more realistic monsters on screen, but I’ll take a rubber suit over cheesy CGI any day and Bertino gives his creature presence and a bit of a mean streak. On a production level, the film seems modestly budgeted but looks good. There is also some atmospheric cinematography of the isolated backwoods setting by Julie Kirkwood and a fitting score by Tomandandy who also scored Girlhouse.

As for the cast, while there are some brief appearances by supporting characters, this is all Kazan and Ballentine’s show and both actresses bring it. Zoe Kazan gives a strong portrayal of a white trash mother who seems to legitimately love her daughter, but can’t get past her own indulgences to show her properly and be a good mom. She conveys the sadness that her daughter wants to leave her, yet also that selfish hesitation that keeps her from getting her act together to keep her. She succeeds in portraying a bad mom, but one that is not totally unlikable. We do feel a bit sorry for her. Fifteen year-old Ella Ballentine is a powerhouse as Lizzy. She is portraying a girl much younger and one that has had a harsh life with seeing her parents separate and then watching as her mother’s indulgences ruins both their lives. Some of the scenes she performs are harrowing…and that’s just the dramatic sequences that illustrate the sad nature of her relationship with her mom. When Lizzy goes one on one with our monster, she is pure dynamite! We sympathize and root for Lizzy completely. Great job by the young actress.

Despite some underwhelming advanced word, this film really clicked for me. Bryan Bertino gave it a strong dramatic backbone by creating two, three dimensional characters with a very intense, antagonistic and sad relationship between them. He then forces those characters to rediscover their need and importance to each other by putting them in a life and death struggle with a dangerous predator and in a situation where they have only each other to rely on. It may sound corny, but it worked completely. The director also gave us some intense and suspenseful monster sequences, for those who came here to see a monster movie and they were quite bloody. Add to that two very strong performances by it’s lead actresses and you have a movie that is powerful family drama and intense monster movie and very satisfying…and sometimes heartbreaking…as both.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 teddy bears that pick the worst time to sing.