By Naomi Roper
Lucas (August Maturo) and Tom (Mike Manning) are orphaned brothers living alone in a cabin in the woods. While Tom struggles with his new parental role an isolated, bullied and grieving Lucas casts a spell desperate to bring back his mother. Instead, he conjures the Virago Witch (Lukas Hassel), a terrifying creature from folklore. The Witch is both mother and protector but as Lucas’s home life becomes increasingly more precarious the Witch becomes more of a threat.
Slapface is a deeply moving, modern-day Grimms Fairytale featuring fine acting from its young cast and especially from the astonishing August Maturo as Lucas. Fairytale lore is coded into the DNA of the film. It’s Careful What You Wish For writ large. You have these two children (as Tom despite being the adult in this situation is still very much a lost child) all alone in a house in the woods, like something out of Hanzel and Gretel. They’re lost in their own little rituals and ways (including their “game” Slapface) and it is only when the outside world intrudes on their solitude that things start to fall spectacularly apart.
The Witch is an impressive creation. Played by Lukas Hassel she looks seven feet tall and like the witch from Snow White bought to life. Electric blue flowers spring up in her wake wherever she goes. The belt the Witch wears is made of trinkets and toys from previous children the witch has “helped’ and is deeply unsettling to look at. Her relationship with Lucas is moving and terrifying all at once. You want her to help Lucas out of his terrible home situation just as much as you want to scream at him to run away from her. A sequence in which they bathe together and he helps her dress is so tender you want to weep for this poor child who is so desperate for someone to love him.
Every adult in Lucas’s life fails him terribly. The police captain (Dan Hedaya) is sweet but hands-off (even though he knows that the boy’s home situation is not a happy one). His brother is an abusive drunk. The Witch is a creature of pure ID, happy to protect her charge but with no concept of the death and destruction she is raining down on those around him. The only adult who tries to help him is Anna (Libe Barer) with tragic consequences.
Slapface is a very challenging watch. Director Jeremiah Kipp sensitively tackles difficult subject matter – grief, bullying and domestic abuse. The slapface game where the brothers resolve arguments or dole out punishments by hitting each other in the face as hard as they can is profoundly disturbing. Watching a young child be repeatedly slapped by an adult is extremely upsetting. It’s even more distressing to watch Lucas downplay the severity of the game to a horrified Anna. To him, it’s just something he and his brother do. The idea that its abuse doesn’t even occur to him.
Lucas is also surrounded by bullies. His girlfriend Anna alternates between wanting to be with him and openly bullying him when she’s with others. The bullying is hateful and not resolved in an emotionally satisfying way. And that makes it an even tougher watch. I wanted the cheap catharsis. The crass moment when the bullied triumph, even momentarily over their victimisers so that we can all leave the cinema with a warming glow that for once the good guys have triumphed. But Slapface is not that movie. Writer/director Jeremiah Kipp has no interest in giving us easy answers or false comfort. It’s challenging and discomforting and won’t be for everyone but no good art ever is.
The performances are all fantastic. Mike Manning (also a producer on the film) does incredibly well with the very difficult role of Tom. Tom is a drunken abuser who hurts his baby brother and cannot even begin to muster the internal reserves he needs to be a proper parent to this boy. But in Manning’s hands, we never doubt that under it all Tom wants to do the right thing. He’s not a monster. Just an overwhelmed child, wallowing in grief, who loves his brother very much but has no idea how to be the man he needs to be for him.
August Maturo gives a performance far beyond his years as Lucas. He’s ostensibly the film’s leading man and he’s completely magnetic on-screen. It’s a deeply sensitive, nuanced performance. Lucas just wants to be loved and he is surrounded by such darkness. Yet he never loses hope – hope that his brother will be a better man, hope that the Witch will help him and hope that his girlfriend will stand up for him. This hope, this spirit of innocence blazes in Maturo’s eyes and infuses every aspect of his performance making it all the more devastating when the audience realises that in a Grimms Fairy Tale innocence is no protection from the horrors of the world.
It all builds and builds to a devastating ending that is guaranteed to leave audiences shaken. When I watched it people were openly sobbing around me.
Slapface is a brilliant, dark, deeply moving modern fairytale featuring an incredible performance from August Maturo.
Slapface played at Grimmfest.