If “ Petite Maman ” left you feeling a little too good about mothers, daughters and empathy, Finland may just have the antidote in Hanna Bergholm’s “ Hatching,” a chilling critique of perfectionism wrapped up in a gruesome body horror.
At the center of it all is a 12-year-old girl named Tinja (Siiri Solalinna). On the surface, she’s the picture of a certain kind of Nordic ideal, with long, blonde, stick-straight hair framing her angular features, not unlike a very young Gwyneth Paltrow. When she’s not in her leotard and tights for gymnastics, she’s usually in a modest, white lacy dress. She even has an angelic voice and demeanor to match. Her life is oppressively lovely.
What Tinja doesn’t quite understand, however, is that it’s entirely a construction of her perfectionist mother (Sophia Heikkilä), who runs a popular blog called “Lovely Everyday Life.” Anyone who’s ever followed an “influencer” on Instagram knows the type. It’s all frolicking and flower crowns and smiles and pastels mixed with just enough transparency about real human emotion (fear, anxiety, etc) to be “relatable.” But of course that’s all manufactured, too. Authenticity is the goal, not the natural outcome.
Tinja worships her mother and is eager to please, even as she pushes her to unhealthy and bloody extremes to ensure that she’s the best in the upcoming gymnastics tournament. She has literal bruises and cuts on her hand, but it’s the internal ones that are the most insidious and at the heart of where the body horror/creature feature aspect of the film comes in. This might be the time to mention that “Hatching” will likely be triggering for anyone who has ever had disordered eating.
And though one could argue that any film about eating disorders is a body horror, “Hatching” takes it to inventive extremes when Tinja comes across an unusual egg and decides to take care of the creature (designed by Gustav Hoegen) that hatches from it. Think “E.T.” meets “Black Swan” and you’ll start to understand the strange, grotesque journey of the film.
The creature starts out very alien and bird-like, something that would have easily fit in an ’80s family fantasy like “The Neverending Story” or “Labyrinth.” But it, too, will undergo an unsettling transformation that’s best experienced rather than described. It’s not a friendly presence, either, but Tinja feels both shame for its existence and a responsibility to nurture it. “I hatched it,” she says over and over.
The story might not be the most subtle creation, but it does an incredible job at poking holes in the gnawing fear of all perfectionists, especially girls on the verge of puberty, that the pretty veneer is hiding something ugly, or worse. But repression has ugly consequences, too. Even some much needed empathy and perspective from her mother’s boyfriend (Reino Nordin) comes too late for poor Tinja.
“Hatching” is an assured and promising debut for Bergholm with a jaw-dropping ending that may just cement it as a cult classic in the making.
“Hatching,” an IFC Films release in theaters Friday, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America, but it’s intense and grotesque imagery and themes are likely more suited to a mature audience. Running time: 86 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr