The Blazing World is the type of film where the ideas of logic, plot or conventional storytelling need not apply; and that is absolutely fine with the story it is telling. Expanded from a short film of the same name, it is the feature-length directorial debut from established actress turned writer/director Carlson Young.
The short film had ideas that explored childhood trauma, ongoing grief and the pain of losing a loved one, which are blended with worlds of horror and fantasy. With the promise of a uniquely singular film experience on a premise that has infinite possibilities, will The Blazing World hit the mark?
Young stars as Margaret, a young student who is teetering towards suicide due to her festering childhood trauma from a tragic incident in her childhood. She is called to visit her parents (Vinessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney) as they plan to move out of the family home. While going through the house and revisiting her memories, she finds herself transported into a world of her own imagination where she would have to confront her demons before they defeat her for good.
One thing that is very commendable about The Blazing World is that the film is ambitious in its visual design. Even when the low-budget seams show infrequently, Young and crew manage to create a world that is enjoyably reverential to classic sources like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and even recent films like The Fall. Yet even with its reverential nature, it feels idiosyncratic enough for it to stand on its own two feet. The settings of the house and the desert vibrant and add credence to the mindset of Margaret in the story.
The actors should also be commended for their commitment in bringing honesty and tenacity to their roles, making the film watchable and entertaining. Young gives a good performance as Margaret as she shows a mix of wonderment, shock and resilience as she avoids and gradually confronts her demons. Udo Kier can do the role of Lained in this sleep and he provides a much-needed imposing presence in the film. Shaw manages to show a sense of vulnerability underneath her peppy façade without going into pantomime silliness while Mulroney impresses as the seething alcoholic father; showing menace with his stoic demeanour with compelling results.
It is unfortunate however that Young overplays her hand in trying to make the established world scary. Everything in the film is insistent in what it wants to be (i.e. scary, eerie, dramatic) to the point that it would either take the audience out of the mood of the film or it would make them react with unintentional laughter. The musical score by Isom Innis and the choices in classical music (including Pas De Deux by Tchaichovsky) tries its very best to bring a certain elegance and spookiness in immersing the audience. However, the sound design and the editing by James K. Crouch is relied on too much to make the film scary (i.e. jump cuts and jump scares) in that it hinders the work of the cast, making their work across as funny at times.
With a more subtle approach, Young could have made a bigger impact in terms of its emotional stakes. To be fair, some will see this film with an operatic, high camp viewpoint which can make the flaws of the film more palatable. Alas, The Blazing World is beautifully designed piece of work, with an admirable level of ambition behind its story. However, the filmmaking is so insistent and overstated that it jars one out of the mood of the film.
TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Blazing World is screening as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is being presented virtually between January 28th and February 3rd, 2021. For more information head to the official Sundance page.