Toronto After Dark 2013: We Are What We Are – Jim Mickle

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TAD’s opening night gala film had all the makings of a crowd-pleaser – a director with a fresh new voice (Mickle also directed Stakeland, which I saw and loved at TIFF a few years ago), a tension-filled plot, and cannibals.  I am very happy to say that this one did not disappoint in the slightest!

We Are What We Are starts out slow, gets slower, occasionally kicks you in the gut, and then lets loose with a terror-filled explosion of action, right before its unforgettable and unexpected ending.  A re-imagining of a Mexican film of the same name, and co-written by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, all I knew going into this was that a cannibalistic family was struggling to keep their dark secret hidden from the other residents of the small town in which they live.  What I did not expect was how drawn in by these characters I would immediately become, and how well the slow-burning tension would work in a story like this.

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A sudden tragedy occurs in the opening moments of the film which profoundly affects the rest of the family we have yet to meet, as a terrible and unrelenting rainstorm begins to flood the area.  As residents batten down the hatches, we are introduced to teen siblings Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), as well as their young brother, Rory (Jack Gore).  The Parker family is ruled by their father, Frank (Bill Sage), who is hell-bent on maintaining the traditions of his ancestors, including an annual Bible-worthy fast, which is in its beginning stages as we move into the film.

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Even knowing the Parker family secret doesn’t detract from the build-up of tension while watching this film.  In fact, it may actually make the atmosphere seem even more tense, as one never quite knows what to expect.  When you think you know what’s about to happen, nothing does.  And when you least expect it, something so shocking leaps of the screen and slaps you in the face, just to make sure you’e still paying attention!  Mickle directs each scene with a loving, almost gentle hand, and every shot is gorgeous to look at – even the few strategically-placed gore-filled ones.  The Parker home is lit almost solely by candles and lanterns, as the power is unreliable in the storm, and somehow the children in particular often appear sunken and sallow, even as the flickering lights add warmth and a kind of purity to their faces.

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I don’t want to give anything more away, as the less-spoiled one is going into this film, the better.  I will say that it is, I’m told, a complete re-imagining of the original, with different characters and a very different ending.  It’s a story about family, and love.  It’s a coming-of-age tale for the two sisters.  And it’s a story that occasionally makes you forget who you’re supposed to be rooting for.  Watch, too, for standout performances from the entire cast, especially Garner and Childers, as well as Michael Parks and Kelly McGillis, who match Sage’s menace with their open warmth and intelligence.

Keep your eyes peeled for We Are What We Are – a fresh new take on a genre you thought you knew!

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