Boys Will Be Boys, by Reed Lackey

19 Jul

Among the Living from directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julie Maury starts as what appears to be a coming-of-age nightmare, but takes a sharp left turn right around the last third. If you’ve read nearly anything by Stephen King, the premise of the film will feel familiar. Three boys from differing home lives decide to skip the last half of their last day of school to explore, rebel, and possibly get into a bit of mischief. They accomplish all three, unfortunately for them.

After nearly burning down a local farmer’s barn (and nearly being captured by the farmer himself) the boys stumble into an abandoned film lot where facades and partial set structures serve as a brand of fictional ghost town. What the boys discover far too late for their own safety is that this lot is being used by a malevolent figure in a clown mask for nightmarish purposes. They witness a poor woman, bound and gagged, dragged screaming into one of the abandoned set buildings. The boys flee and alert the police, who return to find no evidence whatsoever to support their claims. The matter is dismissed as childhood fantasy and the boys return to their respective homes, unaware that they have been watched and will be followed.

For more than an hour of its run time, Among the Living is exciting, assured storytelling. It deftly endears the three boys to us and establishes empathy for their respective domestic stories. One boy comes from money – so much money that his parents barely care about his well being. Another comes from a violently abusive home where the mother is absent and the son lives on a constant razor’s edge of being forced to join her. Lastly, there is the nuclear suburban stereotype, a child with two younger siblings and a happily married mom and dad who is simply trying to navigate the complicated landscape of adolescence. The three boys represent varied experiences that at least partially extend into the territory of universal boyhood.

But that precise sentiment – that boys will be boys – is where the film ultimately takes a sharp right turn in its third act and takes on, not only a dramatically different tone from its first hour, but a disturbingly monstrous interpretation of that age old adage. The film is remarkably restrained until its final third, relying on shadows and sounds to generate effective suspense and thrilling frights. That restraint makes the more relentlessly sadistic sequences in the last act all the more jarring and causes the violence to land flat. The directors boldly cast off restraint towards the end, showing moments of absurdly graphic violence and one extended scene of intimidating torture of a highly likable character. The shift almost borders on emotional abuse, as characters the film succeeded in making us invest in are suddenly discarded or tormented relentlessly. On the positive side, you will not likely be able to predict who will and will not survive this nightmare. On the other hand, you will most likely exit the narrative with an ache in your belly for the moments you wish would have turned out differently for our heroes.

The film does have some outstanding moments however, particularly in its middle act, of raw tension and thrilling suspense. The directors craft both visual and situational aesthetics that produce a solid impact of terror. A moment when one of the boys and his unwitting babysitter suddenly realize they aren’t alone in the house is one of the creepiest suspense scenes I’ve seen in recent years and there are at least three more scenes almost as effective.

These contrast the film’s later moments so drastically that it may suddenly feel as if you are watching a different film, and that’s not quite complimentary in this case. For my part, I wished that the restraint and focus shown in the first hour would have persisted through the final act, and the film’s ultimate reveal of its major surprise is absurd and grotesque enough to nearly obliterate the skillful filmmaking on display in the beginning. There is a return to strong emotional resonance and poignancy in the film’s last scene, but by then there might be a little too much water under the bridge.

Despite the disappointing third act, the film is worth watching if only for the fantastic suspense of its middle section, though I wouldn’t wholly blame you if you decided to slip out once the monster really starts getting down to business.

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