Review by Sean Boelman
Zombi Child, written and directed by Bertrand Bonello, is a new French fantasy-horror film rooted in the tradition of voodoo. Offering an interesting portrait of cultural identity under the guise of a relatively conventional coming-of-age tale, Bonello’s movie is a bit too muddled to be a home run, but mostly works nonetheless.
The film features two storylines: one about a man who is brought back from the dead for labor on a Haitians sugar plantation, and the other about a young Haitian girl trying to fit in with her peers at a French school. Ultimately, the movie’s biggest issue is that it attempts to jump between these storylines too frequently, and while they are both compelling on their own, Bonello doesn’t tie them together in a satisfying way.
The jumps between these two segments are frequently jarring, as they come at inconvenient times. Thankfully, the narrative structure in the film is made very clear in the beginning of the movie, and as a result, it is mostly easy to follow. Still, Bonello is asking a lot of the audience to sit through such frequently changing perspectives, and disappointingly, he isn’t entirely able to pull it off.
Arguably the most frustrating thing about the narrative structure is that it wrecks the character development. Both of the storylines feature a protagonist with a compelling arc, but the narrative always seems to shift perspectives just as one starts to become very involving. The result feels anticlimactic and frustrating.
That said, the actors do a very good job in their roles and are able to bring out some of the emotion in the script that otherwise would have been buried by the structure of the film. Louise Labeque is particularly impressive as the troubled teen trying to fit into a world in which she seemingly does not belong.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in the script, but more often than not, it feels like Bonello threw everything he could on the page in the hope that something would stick. Some, such as the movie’s discussion of fascination with the ‘other’, are quite thought-provoking, but other themes, like the film’s statement about exploitation of labor, are relegated to the back burner.
It is on a technical level that Bonello’s film is most accomplished. Bonello brings a very unique visual style to the movie, and it is admirably atmospheric. Although the film is visibly more focused on the drama portions, Bonello does a solid job of building the sense of dread to go along with those spookier sections.
The intentions of Zombi Child are clearly on display, and while Bertrand Bonello’s movie is still very interesting, it feels a bit too messy and disorganized to fully resonate. Nevertheless, it is nice to see an important part of an underrepresented culture depicted on screen.
Zombi Child is now playing in theaters.