Two young siblings live in rural isolation with their mother, whose increasingly erratic, controlling behavior motivates them to investigate her past and plan their risky escape—despite their knowing little about the dangers that lurk beyond the doors of the only home they’ve ever known. If that sounds like the plot of Goodnight Mommy, the brilliant, buzzy 2014 thriller or its tepid, tamed 2022 remake starring Naomi Watts, you’re not wrong. On the surface, Carlo Lavagna’s Shadows, debuting this week on North American VOD, shares a basic—and highly serviceable—plot with Goodnight Mommy, but ventures into new and uncharted terrain with several surprises of its own.
So technically, Shadows is not Goodnight Mommy, even if its basic conceit is the same. Shadows is more of an understated psychological thriller than a maternal/body-horror creeper. There’s no … err, … little gore here. And no balaclava and no mirror-dancing (if you’ve seen the Watts version; and if you haven’t, don’t). Shadows is set in a post-catastrophic enclave deep in the woods, where Alma (Mia Threapleton) and Alex (Lola Petticrew), two teenage sisters, are survivors of an unnamed, unknown, undiscussed event.
The two live in an abandoned motel with their Mother (Saskia Reeves), whose strict, overprotective rules shelter them from the threats of the outside world—and provide the plot its Proppian narrative interdictions, e.g. don’t go into the woods in daylight. There, Mother says, lurk the Shadows, ominous presences which infest the world beyond the river. Their shadowy presence keeps Alma and Alex prisoners in the hotel Mother has turned into a survivalist’s shelter.
Like in Goodnight Mommy, though, the Shadows siblings’ youth makes them naturally inquisitive and prone to investigation. Alma and Anna scour the motel for evidence of the outside world they’ve never known—a magazine arouses some first sexual yearnings, a photograph some deep suspicions. And when Mother discovers what she sees as their betrayal, her punishment (again like in Goodnight Mommy) is to withhold food. So in turn, the two grow even more distrustful and ever more determined to learn what lurks outside.
While the basic narrative may seem derivative, Lavagna’s direction and the actors’ performances make for an organic, compelling, and at moments suspenseful presentation. Threapleton, Petticrew, and Reeves are the only actors onscreen. The two young actors convey a sisterly affectation for each other that feels perfectly believable. Aside from their quite believably knowing only each other and no one else their own age, both come across as perfectly normal, thoughtful, inquisitive young girls (and not the creepy twins-with-a-secret of Goodnight Mommy).
That the two share a wary apprehension of their increasingly distant Mother also feels perfectly reasonable. Threapleton—Kate Winslet’s daughter who appeared alongside her in A Little Chaos and will appear in Starz’s adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons—carries the bulk of the load and makes for an engaging young protagonist with her expressive face and piercing eyes. Petticrew is equally excellent, and Reeves can turn quickly from a doting mother to a foreboding adversary.
The thrill of Shadows escalates when Alma and Alex make their break. The two have a lot to learn, not only about their mother, but about the world outside their survivalist camp and whatever event it was that isolated them there alongside Mother. If Goodnight Mommy set the internet abuzz with its surprise reveal in 2014 and the 2022 remake offered nearly no payoff at all, Shadows has a perfectly clever conceit to reveal as the girls make their escape, one that delivers a payoff to the film’s slow-paced narrative burn.
With a script by Fabio Mollo, Damiano Bruè, Vanessa Picciarelli, and Tiziana Triana, Shadows is the second feature from director Carlo Lavagna, Lavagna, whose first feature film, 2015’s Arianna screened at Venice Film Festival, is known primarily for his short film, documentaries, and commercial work. Shadows, an Italian and Irish production, is his second feature film.
Shadows will be available on a number of digital and cable platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, iNDemand, and DISH, starting November 15th.