An impressive and harrowing portrayal of two Black women struggling within the confines of a prestigious school with a dark secret.

Synopsis: Two African American women begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England.

Gail (Regina Hall) has been promoted to Master of Ancaster College – a prestigious University that has long struggled with diversity. Her appointment is one that the school is keen to publicise, as is the tenure track of Liv (Amber Gray). That the pair have experienced success is held as an example of the school’s changing attitudes. However, when Jasmine (Zoe Renee) joins the school she immediately faces microaggressions and overt discrimination. This, coupled with a story about a haunting at the school, threatens Jasmine’s peace of mind.

The most impressive element of Mariama Diallo’s film (her feature debut, no less) is that it uses Jasmine’s sleepwalking condition as a way to destabilise every moment, seamlessly integrating reality and dream-like sequences. The cumulative effect is disarming, throwing the viewer into that space with the characters. Seemingly normal situations transform into sinister set pieces within the blink of an eye, benign interactions become probing interrogations or other acts of aggression, reflecting the experiences of the women navigating this often unwelcoming space. The flow between states is as absorbing as it is confronting, trading on quieter, creepier moments as opposed to sudden jolts. Nightmarish visions emerge bathed in red light, signifying the shift after it has occurred.

The set design is to be commended, with the school and particularly the Master’s house all embedded with a sense of history and threat. Dusty paintings and archaic elements of the house all carry considerable weight as Gail explores her new surroundings. Even in the more modern areas of the school, the weight of expectation surrounds the characters, providing reminders that they are in a minority. Intrusions from the institution’s glossy, diverse advertising campaign cut through to maximum effect, the bright photography in stark contrast to the unwelcoming rooms and tense gatherings the rest of the film shows. Carefully straddling the line between the supernatural and genuine headline-grabbing news stories, the command over the material is seriously impressive.

White characters compare the women to existing popular and accomplished Black notable names, from Barack Obama to Beyonce, showing their lack of diversity – their only references distant and exceptional, rather than people they directly know and value. That they engage in co-opting elements of Black culture while dismissing the women’s lived experience is a recurring feature throughout the film. In one of the film’s most alarming sequences, primarily white students gather to aggressively chant along, disturbingly relishing the moment to repeat the song’s use of the n-word. There is a sadistic glee in their repetition, as they indulge in the damaging taboo and it is clear to see why Jasmine finds herself driven from the room by it.

As much as the design excels, Master also functions as a fascinating character study, spanning three women at different life stages. Each performer thoroughly sells their role. Regina Hall so perfectly inhabits a woman battling with her new role and the history it comes with, by turns confident and frustrated as she finds herself embroiled in the kind of academic gate-keeping that holds so many at arms-length. Zoe Renee brings a fragility to Jasmine, but she also has such a compelling spark that carries her through the film. While Liv is a more peripheral character, for the most part, Amber Gray’s interactions with both Hall and Renee add a certain depth as competing interests and world views collide.

This is magnetic, poised film-making with a keen eye for both social commentary and horror imagery that lingers beyond the credits. This is a film that treats its performers with reverence, resulting in a truly engaging experience.

5 out of 5 stars

5 out of 5 stars

Master is released on Amazon Prime Video on March 18th.

Little Monster (2018) Review

Little Monster makes a zombie crisis incredibly personal in this low-budget, Wales-based production from Mad Science Films based on a novella of the same name written by director James Plumb.

Synopsis: Your six-year-old daughter has been bitten by a zombie and now hungers for human flesh. What do you do? Do you double tap her in the brain? Or do you become the ultimate enabler and feed her human flesh? And where do you get human flesh from? This is the dilemma that Gareth and Jen face with their beautiful daughter Ana. What will they do? And how far will it go?

The zombie genre is probably one of the most saturated sub genres in horror and there are frequent attempts to put a new, interesting spin on it. Doubly so for low-budget productions who are sometimes unable to represent the scale that a zombie outbreak would cover. Little Monster deals with this in an excellent way by making its central story as small as possible. Despite this, where it needs to employ more gory elements, this is done exceptionally well.

When Gareth (Martyn Stallard) takes his daughter Ana to the park to make up for his lateness to her birthday party, his inability to put down his phone from his demanding boss results in her being bitten. After Gareth brutally dispatches her attacker Ana is taken to hospital where his long-suffering wife Jen (Stacey Daly) is on hand to be at her bedside. The representation of the horrible drudgery of hospital waiting rooms adds a great deal to the tension and lead actors Stallard and Daly ably perform the increasing toll that this takes on them and their relationship. There are a few moments where some of the acting, especially outside of the core cast feels a little stilted, but that is to be expected where performers may be low on experience and doesn’t particularly harm the film. Isobelle Plumb does a great job as the realities of Ana’s illness take hold. Without speaking, she’s able to embody a sense of a normal girl slipping away gradually, which would be difficult enough for seasoned actors.

The scale of the crisis is revealed mostly in terms of what is happening to the central family. In keeping with a smaller budget there are no big scenes of mass chaos but the family are told they must return home to care for Ana due to the hospital needing more room and resources. This allows the claustrophobia of their situation to really be exploited for maximum impact as Gareth and Jen struggle with Ana’s care. Despite playing the situation as incredibly serious there are moments of dark humour and this does a lot to ground the film and humanise the central characters further.

It is really great to see such a well-realised film set and made in South Wales with Welsh accents. Little Monster doesn’t rewrite any rules about its monsters or add any mythology and doesn’t attempt to. By turning the transformation into more of a domestic drama it feels very different to other zombie dramas. The central question of how far someone would go to help their child looms over the film and Stallard makes excellent work of his own, desperate transformation. The circumstances that Gareth finds himself in with an aggressive, ever-present boss wanting to discipline him for missing work despite the knowledge that his child is very ill offers some modern social commentary which further grounds the film within a set time and place.

Overall, Little Monster uses a compelling and emotional character-driven story that is high on tension to overcome budgetary constraints and produce a film that is engaging, darkly funny and thought-provoking.

Little Monster is now available to rent on Amazon Prime for £3.49