Natalie Erika James’ feature debut mixes loneliness, intimacy, and a strong Bella Heathcote performance to disconcerting effect.
There’s a point about halfway through Relic where things start to click. It isn’t in terms of plot or character, though; those are pretty obvious from the jump. Sam (Bella Heathcote) and her mother, Kay (Emily Mortimer), have returned to rural Victoria to check on the family matriarch, Edna (Robyn Nevin). She’s gone missing. Her house, however, remains a collection of sticky notes to remind her of menial tasks, shelves full of familial antiques. It’s a two-story purgatory, and each memory ends up in the side of a darkened room.
Relic doesn’t make any attempts at diagnosing Edna’s condition. It’s clear she suffers from dementia of some sort, and the tone from director/co-writer Natalie Erika James damns Kay and Sam to inherent this sort of decay in one way or another. James’ feature debut, however, is a slow burn, and its sparseness finds a complement in its construction. Case in point: a moment 50 minutes in when Sam runs downstairs after seeing something spooky. Her hand grabs the banister as she swirls down the house, and it’s that sense of touch—of intimacy—that’s scary.
This might sound excessive, but the difference here is how each family member feels like a ghost to begin with. They’re jaded, their actions obligatory. Their memories of one another form a mosaic of the family unit that may as well have never existed. All the while, Gran’s mind continues to go, but it doesn’t get emptier. It fills itself with more negative space instead, sucking Sam and Kay in as a result. Even the camera gets more disoriented, and Denise Haratzis & Sam Lahiff’s editing can only imply the house’s layout as a result.
Some may find [James’] debut to be oddly communal. Some may find it to be lonely, possibly even depressing. Either way, those emotions exist as a unit. That’s all a family could ask for.
James, who wrote the script with Christian White, has a keen understanding of subjectivity. Her gift in that regard almost never wavers. That said, what sticks out even more is her understanding of how introspective and interpersonal understanding cross at points. Relic is, on paper, a tale told from the outside looking in. Characters border on archetypal but feel more human thanks to a trio of restrained performances, and while DP Charlie Sarroff’s grey color palette can get overbearing at points, he and James stage the film to the point where scenes feel populated by shadows. Everyone is living, breathing wallpaper.
Nevin does fine work by shading her role in more skittish behavior. Mortimer, on the other hand, finds depth in Kay’s cynicism by rooting it in the character’s own unspoken fear of aging. But the lynchpin of the family—and Relic as a whole—is Heathcote. She’s so thoroughly with each setting as opposed to just being in them, and her interactions with the house bridge the film’s dichotomy between the physical and the internal. That growth of empty space, that drift from acting and into reacting—it unravels the viewer into this family’s unconscious.
The end result is something that, while not a game-changer, thrives on its execution. There are no jump scares, and Relic is astute in its ability to imply more than it shows with its blend of Asian and Western influnences. It’s truly creepy in that regard at points. Some may find issues with the note the picture ends on; it’s nothing that explains itself. Still, James solidifies her tone and themes so early on that her endnote offers something slightly different for everyone. Some may find her debut to be oddly communal. Some may find it to be lonely, possibly even depressing. Either way, those emotions exist as a unit. That’s all a family could ask for.
Relic is now in select theaters and on VOD.