Mommy blogs in the age of influencer culture are a horror all their own, women parading their children as perfectly curated beings inside their perfectly curated lives. It’s in one of these artificially constructed homes in which director Hanna Bergholm’s incisive coming-of-age creature feature Hatching begins. A baroque nightmare out of Architectural Digest, overly stuffed wallpapered walls surround fragile glass furniture and gaudy crystal ornamental decorations and chandeliers. Our video host (Sophia Heikkilä) introduces her perfect family, all clad in white, including her troubled pre-teen daughter Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), when a squawking crow suddenly crashes through a window, spinning the scene into chaos. Although Tinja tries to save its little life, her mother unceremoniously snaps its neck, putting into motion a bizarre series of events.
A high-strung aspiring gymnast, Tinja is all frayed nerves as she tries desperately to live up to the high standards of her mother, whose affection is given only when the camera is rolling. But all her mother’s perfection is a façade, masking a failing marriage and a torrid affair. The whiplash induced by the dissolution of her mother’s carefully crafted world takes a heavy toll on Tinja, who finds an extremely strange way to deal with her swirling emotions. Checking on the dead bird’s grave one day, she finds a mysterious egg in its place. Impulsively taking it home, she begins to care for the egg, keeping it warm inside one of her stuffed animals. Before long the egg hatches, and with it comes a manifestation of every repressed urge Tinja has ever felt.
Although the metaphor of girls becoming a literal monster version of themselves during puberty is a bit on the nose, the execution – through Solalinna’s masterful dual performance as both the delicate Tinja and her rabid doppelgänger Alli – makes it work. Solalinna’s wide, soulful eyes fill Tinja with sadness and wonder as she barrels through changes in her family situation that she has no say in and barely understands, while her physicality as Alli deftly manifests that feeling of not being in control of an ever-changing body as you head into your teen years.
In an equally stunning performance, Heikkilä plays Tinja’s mother not just as another kind of monster, but as a woman trapped in a cage of her own making. Her demands on her daughter are emotionally and physically abusive, but Heikkilä finds empathy for how this character became the woman she is today. She’s not a one-note harpy, but rather the result of cycles of the same emotional abuse. One particularly chilling scene involving a hairbrush perfectly evokes that tender feeling of having your mother brush your hair, only to have it devolve into trauma and pain.
Complicating matters even further are the men. Tinja’s father (Jani Volanen) is a loving parent, but clueless when it comes to Tinja’s changing state and helpless when it comes to his wife’s new plans for her life with her lover Tero (Reino Nordin). Neither man is presented as a cliche of masculinity; both, rather, are sensitive and empathetic portrayals of men ready to take active roles in raising their children, unfortunately caught up in a primal battle between mother and child that they don’t quite understand.
Ilja Rautsi’s script understands the war forever battled between mothers and daughters, the internal pull to be just like them and the revulsion when it eventually happens. Rautsi understands that motherhood is hard, and that even when going into it with clear eyes, as seen through Tinja’s attempt to be a better mother to this monster than her mother was to her, it can very easily go completely awry. Despite the film’s more grisly aspects, it is the horror Rautsi mines from the fraught bonds mothers and daughters share that rattle and shake the depths of the psyche.
This is indeed a creature feature, with stellar practical effects by animatronic designer Gustav Hoegen and special effects make-up by Conor O’Sullivan transforming human performers into the literal monster. Their work harkens back to gooey horror effects of films like Cronenberg’s The Fly or Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches, allowing the monster to feel real, and its terror all the more frightening.
As gory as it is psychologically insightful, Bergholm beautifully balances body horror with the terror of teenage emotions, crafting imagery that shocks and unsettles in a setting as delicate as a velvet throw pillow. Anchored by committed performances from its two leads and truly stellar practical effects, Hatching announces Bergholm as a bright new talent in the genre space and offers a gruesome addition to the teenage-girldom-is-hell cannon.
“Hatching” is in theaters Friday.