The Grand Jury Prize winner gives audiences two different flavors of terror.
Raging Grace, the feature debut from writer-director Paris Zarcilla just won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s SXSW. It’s a film that offers viewers two horror narratives for the price of one. The first is a standard sort involving a creepy mansion, shocking family secrets, and other traditional genre tropes. The second, on the other hand, replaces the overtly spooky elements with more realistic, if no less tense and disturbing, story points.
In that narrative, the audience follows an undocumented worker as she seeks a better life for herself and her child. Instead, she lands in the clutches of real-life monsters determined to exploit others’ desperation for their own twisted gains. Raging Grace handles both approaches effectively. Ultimately, the latter track stings the hardest and will linger longest in the minds of viewers.
Joy (Max Eigenmann) is an undocumented Filipino woman living in the U.K. She’s taking on any shit job she can in the hopes of saving enough to purchase forged documents. These should allow her and her young daughter, Grace (Jaeden Page Boadilla), to avoid deportation. Miraculously, Katherine Garrett (Leanne Best) hires Joy to serve as a caregiver to her ailing uncle (David Hayman). He appears to be in his dying days at his enormous and, inevitably, isolated mansion. It seems a bit odd, but Joy needs both the substantial amount of money and a place to live. She accepts, sneaking Grace into the house in a suitcase and ordering her to stay in their room whenever Katherine is present.
Perhaps inevitably, the high-spirited Grace is not one to stay cooped up. One of her secret jaunts leads to the discover there’s likely more to Mr. Garrett’s condition than meets the eye. It appears that Katherine, who insists on giving her uncle his medication herself, is feeding him an array of pills meant to keep him near-comatose.
At first, Joy is powerless to do anything. If she reports Katherine to the police, it will almost certainly result in her and Grace’s deportation. However, when Katherine has to go away for a week, Joy and Grace use the time to try to heal Mr. Garrett through traditional healing methods. Lo and behold, they work. Once he revives, the grateful Mr. Garrett befriends his saviors, forming a particular bond with Grace. Suffice it to say, things take a definite turn for Joy and Grace. The true motivations of both Mr. Garrett and his niece come to light and leave them with seemingly no recourse of their own.
[W]hile Zarcilla’s film is undeniably uneven, the parts where he does connect hit hard.
While watching Raging Grace, some viewers may find themselves thinking of and comparing it to last year’s Nanny, another festival hit. It too told a story that blended overt genre tropes with the more mundane terrors faced by an immigrant trying to succeed in the face of numerous forms of exploitation. While Nanny was a somewhat more ambitious film, especially in how it utilized concepts derived from African folklore to add a specific ethnographic foundation to the horrific elements. It wasn’t entirely as successful at intertwining the genre tropes with the more mundane horrors of the everyday immigrant experience that it delivers with piercing focus.
Raging Grace may not be quite as audacious as Nanny. Still, while Zarcilla’s film is undeniably uneven, the parts where he does connect hit hard. The aspects involving Joy’s attempts to quietly navigate the system to provide a decent life for herself and Grace and the risks she elects to take to save Mr. Garrett are moving and gripping in equal measure. These are thanks in no small part to the deeply felt performance from Eigenmann as Joy.
The more conventional Gothic-oriented chills are not quite as compelling. Of course, we have seen such things countless times before. Nonetheless, the filmmaker executes them with style and flair. There are also several effective scare moments of the sort that aim to slowly creep viewers out instead of having them jump with increasingly tedious “BOO!” moments.
There are times when the audience will likely recall Raging Grace is the work of a first-time feature filmmaker. For instance, naming the lead characters Joy and Grace is maybe a little too on the nose. Additionally, the backstories of the Garretts could use more detail, and the climax is a bit of a mess.
For the most part, however, it does a good job of depicting its array of horrors. It is especially effective at conveying Joy’s growing discomfort regarding her current situation. Simultaneously, it works as a depiction of undocumented immigrants’ resilience, particularly women of color. Raging Grace wants to wig audiences out while making them think. It does a good job at both.