Claudia Llosa’s (“Aloft”) Spanish film “Fever Dream” brings the viewer into a secluded town where paranormal activity runs rampant, involving them in a mystery that culminates in the most devastating decision of a mother’s life. Or it tries to, anyway.
The film opens on Amanda (María Valverde, “Sounds Like Love”) as she is dragged through the forest. She speaks in a voiceover to a child named David (Emilio Vodanovich, “Blood Will Tell”). We learn that something sinister happened that got her here, but she does not remember what. The voiceover continues as the film depicts Amanda’s memories from the time she and her daughter Nina (Guillermina Sorribes Liotta, debut) arrive in a new town. There, she befriends David’s mother, Carola (Dolores Fonzi, “The Moneychanger”). Carola confides in Amanda and tells her of a time several years before when David became sick after playing in water which was apparently poisoned. Carola took David to a healer who offered her the choice of letting David die or replacing half of his soul with that of another being. Carola saves her son, but he seems different. As it turns out, this is not an uncommon occurrence in this town.
As Amanda traces back over her memories, she questions whether anything actually happened to David and why he became sick in the first place. She realizes that she does not know where her own daughter is and becomes determined to find her as well as figure out what happened to Amanda herself. What she discovers leads her to a decision she herself must make regarding her daughter.
At its heart, this is a film about motherhood. “What would you give up to keep your child alive?” Despite several paranormal twists, it is the relationships between Amanda and Nina, as well as Amanda and Carola, that we care about most. “Fever Dream” deserves credit for taking the time to develop these relationships, especially considering that many thrillers fail in this regard.
The problem with so many movies in this genre is that they so badly want the psychological element to drive the story that they end up abandoning the human aspect. Without this human aspect, however, the psychological and suspenseful parts of the film cannot be effective. In this case, if the viewer doesn’t care about the characters, or if the relationships between the mothers and their children are unbelievable, no amount of stakes and psychological dilemmas will make the film work.
Though the relationship between Amanda and Nina is generic and uncomplicated, we do understand how much Amanda cares for her daughter. We see them singing to each other as they go to sleep and playing hide and seek in a field, and we see Amanda become protective of her daughter after she learns what happened to David. Meanwhile, the two mothers bond over their care for their children. They comfort and encourage each other; Amanda even teaches Carola how to drive.
That said, in “Fever Dream,” it is the moments where the characters feel complete and human which resonate most with the viewer, and these moments are few and far between. Besides a nice scene of Amanda and Nina singing in the car, the beginning of the film feels strictly serious. This makes it both difficult to care for the characters and difficult to enjoy the story. Despite the immediate knowledge that something bad happened, the beginning of the film feels as though nothing is happening. Almost every scene is serious, without a hint of joy or real emotion. The film is tense before there is a reason to be tense, which pushes the viewer away. Much of it feels as though the viewer is being dragged to the final revelation rather than running toward it.
The question the film asks about the nature of motherhood is intriguing, if not as thought-provoking as intended. During the film, the viewer is hooked by the decision the mothers must make on behalf of their children; however, the premise fails to be truly thought-provoking because it is far from something we need to worry about. Being paranormal, not everything needs to be realistic, but the conflicts the characters face should be applicable to real life. In the case of “Fever Dream,” to connect the premise to reality would be a stretch. The questions it asks become mostly irrelevant outside of the film, diminishing any long-lasting effects it could have.
Beyond any poisoned water or evil children, the scariest thing about “Fever Dream” is that it falls into the category of completely mediocre movies. If you want a thriller to watch or something slightly spooky for Halloween, it’s not a bad choice, but it’s not a good one either. Trying to figure out what is happening to Amanda could make it a fun watch, although the slow beginning is difficult to enjoy. It is intriguing to consider what you would do to save your child if given the same choice as Carola. However, nothing the movie offers is likely to stay with the viewer for a moment after the credits roll.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.