The Finnish film Hatching starts as timely satire, and ends as an unsettling horror film about a child’s love and rage
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Festival)
When one continues the longtime internet phenomenon of mommy bloggers, many of whom have now moved on to YouTube, a question comes to mind: what do their children think of it? How do they feel about having every aspect of their lives captured on camera, often in a way that feels designed and artificial, for an audience of strangers? What happens when they become aware that the life that’s presented for that audience isn’t an accurate reflection of what it’s really like? The cognitive dissonance of such a thing must be extraordinary. Hanna Bergholm’s Hatching focuses on a young girl coming to such a realization, which leads to nightmarish consequences.
Adolescent Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) is the perfect child, pretty, well-behaved and a talented gymnast. She’s also painfully thin, given to jogging or doing sit-ups alone when most girls her age are hanging out with friends and giggling over boys. The line from Tinja’s numerous undiagnosed anxiety disorders leads straight to her unnamed mother (Sophia Heikkilä), a professional vlogger whose videos depicting her family’s “lovely everyday life” are staged to within an inch of their lives. Even when the iPhone camera isn’t rolling, Mother is always “on,” demanding that the entire family wear color-coordinated outfits and hyperfocusing on Tinja’s upcoming gymnastics competition.
Tinja is desperate for Mother’s love, and especially her approval, while at the same time understanding that the situation she’s been forced into for internet celebrity is unnatural. Mother is merely playing a role, liking to be perceived by her viewers as the perfect homemaker without actually having to do the work it entails. The rare times she attempts to connect with Tinja it’s to casually discuss the affair she’s having with another man, assuming that Tinja will keep it a secret from her oblivious pushover of a father (Jani Volanen). Mother seems to have little interest in being the kind of person Tinja actually needs, a loving, encouraging source of comfort, when she could simply film them doing “just us girls” things like making each other flower crowns instead.
After putting an injured bird out of its misery, Tinja takes home the single egg it lays with the intent of caring for it. The egg, nourished on Tinja’s tears, grows to an unnaturally large size, before hatching a grotesque bird-humanoid creature from it. Though she’s terrified and repulsed by it, Tinja also feels a strange maternal tenderness towards the creature, eventually naming it Alli and allowing it to hide in her bedroom. She treats Alli as both a surrogate child, and the friend she desperately needs, and the more love she pours into Alli, the more Alli becomes human. In return, Alli, with whom Tinja has some sort of strange psychic connection, is the agent of Tinja’s rage, exacting violence on anyone Tinja perceives as threatening to take what little affection her mother shows for her away.
Meanwhile, Mother, pathologically self-centered, dismisses Tinja’s hysterical distress over what she’s experiencing as pre-competition jitters, and her helpful advice to get over them is to win the competition. When it appears that Mother is in the process of swapping out her home and family for brand new, more social media-friendly models, it proves as a point of no return for both Tinja, and Alli, who now looks almost fully human, and with a very familiar face.
Hatching starts out as a timely satire of the kind of people who curate the lives they present online so carefully that they appear to live in a home goods catalog. Nothing in Tinja’s house, wallpapered in variations of the same hideous floral print, looks like an actual family lives there. Even her bedroom has no signs that an actual preteen girl lives in it, no toys, no posters or artwork on the walls, nothing. It’s Mother’s set, and it’s entirely her hand that’s decorated it. It’s amusing, but mostly deeply creepy.
It then becomes bleak body and psychological horror, as Mother becomes ever more consumed with trying to update her image at the expense of the family she already has, Tinja’s anger becomes more unfocused, and Alli becomes harder to control. Its ending seems inevitable, but is still dark and heartbreaking. The agony of having a parent incapable of acknowledging their child as anything but an extension of themselves is the basis for a thousand films, but Hatching is certainly the first to involve a mutant bird monster, and it’s a little startling how well it ends up working. A surprisingly well-done creation of practical effects, it’s easy to see why Tinja might be compelled to take care of it–she’s so desperate to give love and receive it in turn from anything that it doesn’t matter.
Bergholm’s staging and direction isn’t particularly inspired, but she is very much locked into Ilja Rautsi’s devastating screenplay. We know that this situation cannot end well, but it doesn’t stop us from hoping that maybe Tinja will get the love and support she needs, and live the normal life she deserves. Empathy for characters still feels like a novelty in horror, and Hatching takes that to a painful level, bolstered by young Siiri Solalinna’s performance.
However, that empathy is reserved only for Tinja, and no one else. While Father is merely useless, Mother is so loathsome she defies belief, a phony grin barely hiding the fact that she’ll snap if she doesn’t get exactly what she wants. She’s also what people imagine when they think “mommy blogger,” so polished she seems inhuman, and who treats her family as props to be decorated and choreographed. The most chilling moment in Hatching has nothing to do with monsters or angry little girls. It’s when Mother and Tinja are watching raw video footage of another day of faked family fun, before it’s edited and sent out to an audience Tinja can’t see, and will never know. “We had a really authentic moment there,” Mother says. “People love them.