The Michigan Daily film writers love to watch and discuss films at the cutting edge of storytelling and there is no place better to do so than the Sundance Film Festival. After two years attending the festival only online, writers and editors for the Film Beat have trudged through snow and taken planes, trains and automobiles to arrive at Park City, Utah. Our coverage will include the premieres of dramas, romances, documentaries and everything in between. Welcome to our discussion on films made with Oscar winners and first-time filmmakers alike.
Nothing could damper my excitement for my first day at the Sundance Film Festival — not even a 24-hour travel ordeal in which I was deprived of food, water and sleep. Jan. 20 had a rocky start.
Erin and I made our way to the bus stop at 5 a.m., navigating darkness and 20 degree weather with a wind chill factor of 17. Three stops into our bus ride, we realized we were riding the wrong one. We regrouped and defrosted in the lobby of the University Orthopedic Center at the University of Utah, where we gave in and got an Uber.
To make this strange day even stranger, I chose a 9 a.m. screening of “Run Rabbit Run,” an Australian horror film, as my first festival feature experience. “Run Rabbit Run,” directed by Daina Reid (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) follows Sarah (Sarah Snook, “Succession”), a mother forced to revisit her past after her daughter Mia (Lily LaTorre, “The Clearing”) begins to embody it.
Mia and Sarah are grieving Sarah’s late father (Neil Melville, “Five Bedrooms”) and Sarah is grappling with the estrangement of her sick mother (Greta Scacchi, “Presumed Innocent”). The film begins on Mia’s 7th birthday. The significance of her age becomes apparent as the story unfolds — Reid uses every opportunity to provide the audience with purposeful information and veiled clues. A rabbit appears on Sarah’s doorstep which, to Sarah’s annoyance, Mia insists on keeping. The rabbit becomes an ominous presence, never straying far from Mia and biting Sarah when she attempts to force it out of the backyard.
In the days following Mia’s birthday, it is revealed that Sarah has more baggage than the film first lets on. Mia becomes insistent that she is not Mia, but Alice: Sarah’s sister who went missing at age 7 and about whom Sarah is painfully reluctant to speak. While it is suggested that Mia’s shift in behavior is a manifestation of her own grief and anxiety, it soon becomes clear something sinister has bewitched her. Reminiscent of “The Omen” and “Pet Sematary,” Mia takes on the role of “creepy child antagonist” and Sarah as “concerned, freaked mother.” LaTorre’s performance is impressive for such a young actress, conjuring feelings of resentment, irritation and dread. Snook doesn’t disappoint either, her steep descent into psychological torment as exhausting and anxiety-inducing as needed to make this an effective horror film.
Sarah and Mia (Alice?) find themselves lost in an extraordinary world where ghosts haunt dreams and reality, the only world where Alice seems to manifest. If you look carefully, allusions to “Alice in Wonderland” can be found sprinkled throughout the film. Although Reid does nothing more than allude to this connection, Alice and the white rabbit symbolize the odd and the unknown in this film as well as the children’s story. There are even several slow-zoom shots of confined, dark and empty spaces that inversely seem gaping and endless, as if beckoning the onlooker down the rabbit hole. The cinematography is exquisite and crafts the film’s foreboding mood. The look of the film is subtle and understated, propped up by pleasing sets and a keen awareness of camera framing and composition.
The film’s first half exemplifies how not to suffocate an exposition with empty context, building intrigue and introducing conflict while leaving room for speculation and contemplation. As a horror thriller, the most enjoyable part of watching “Run Rabbit Run” is attempting to make sense of the obscurities. The film prompts the audience to ask questions: Is Sarah a reliable narrator? Is this a story of the supernatural or of psychosis? Do Mia and the rabbit represent reincarnation or possession? The fun is in the mystery.
“Run Rabbit Run” has you theorizing throughout, only to arrive at a perplexing and somewhat barren resolution. In Erin’s words, “I wanted this to be a movie about a little kid dealing with anxiety.” There is no rule that films should take things in the direction we hope — in fact it’s often better when they don’t — but it is difficult to appreciate a last act consisting of a meandering string of unusual events that are left unresolved. Rather than choosing a metaphorical approach, the film takes on a supernatural methodology that does not allow any conclusive, logical conclusions. Several scenes lack cohesive transitions, creating multiple moments that feel like abrupt endings — think the various endings to “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” but none of them particularly satisfying.
Despite an erratic final half, and though I can’t reveal much without spoiling it, I will note that there is a certain poetry to “Run Rabbit Run.” While lacking cohesion and general sense, the last act manages to create interesting symmetry with the curious events of the first, making for a thought-provoking digestion of the film as a whole. Very few films can skillfully sow seeds of suspicion and doubt without the audience’s awareness, and “Run Rabbit Run” does so aptly.
What begins with promise ultimately loses the effect I suspect “Run Rabbit Run” intended. But as my first Sundance screening, it will hold a special place in my heart. And there’s more to come. Stay tuned, and as the Park City locals say: Happy festing!
Daily Arts Writer Maya Ruder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.