Life is tough when you're a teen, particularly when you've recently lost your father and your mother decides that the best thing is to move you away from your friends to an isolated cabin in the woods. These are the starting elements of Pyewacket, a haunting and unsettling film about a mother and daughter ensnared in grief, and what happens when one begins to view the other as a literal monster.
Leah is struggling with the recent death of her father, and turns to the occult as a way to navigate her grief and regain a sense of empowerment. But despite her and her friends' outward show of affiliation with the dark arts, it's clear that Leah is generally a good kid who's just going through a tough time, rather than an actual practitioner of capital e Evil. We all knew (or maybe even were) kids like this in high school - outsiders who found it more comfortable to align themselves with others at the margins, rather than to try to fit into a system that didn't understand or accept them.
Leah's mother is also wrestling with her own grief and what it means to exist without her husband's companionship. She drinks too much, isn't a reliable source of emotional support for her daughter, and generally seems to be evolving into an unlikeable, and possibly even dangerous, woman. Both characters are wholly relatable and believable in how they choose to maneuver through this new reality - it's painful and awkward and confusing in all the ways you imagine it would be.
Leah’s mother, no longer able to psychologically bear living in the home she once shared with her husband, makes the decision to move out to a remote home in the forest, away from the friends and minimal stability Leah has been relying on for healing. It’s a decision that we understand from her mom’s perspective, but also recognize as disastrous for Leah’s currently fragile state.
After a huge fight at the new home, Leah’s interest in the occult moves into darker territory. She goes into the forest and, in a rush of naive and impulsive anger, performs a ritual to summon an evil spirit named Pyewacket, who she asks to kill her mother.
What makes the film so successful is that we relate to both Leah and her mother every step of the way. Though we experience the film through Leah’s eyes, writer and director Adam MacDonald gives Leah’s mother enough screen time and empathy to make her a troubled but sympathetic character. She’s essentially a good person who’s been forced to endure a terrible tragedy, and our understanding of her pain makes what happens in the latter part of the film even more horrific and disturbing.
I really liked Pyewacket - it’s a fantastic film, and I was impressed by the emotional core that the film uses to push the narrative forward. That being said, horror fans who don’t like slow burners or who are looking for a truly scary experience might be disappointed - the film takes time to build atmosphere and while it has some creepy moments, you won’t find jump scares or gore. This film is about a real life kind of horror, the kind where tragedy morphs people and their relationships with one another into something terrifying, dark and unrecognizable.
If there’s one complaint I have about the film, it’s that it telegraphs its ending far too easily. The final moments seem inevitable, but they lose some of their emotional impact because you see them coming from a mile away.
Still, Pyewacket is a chilling and beautifully allegorical way to highlight how grief can destroy people. Highly recommended.