After the Woman led her and her sister out into the woods, Darlin’ has been living feral with her new mother, communicating only in grunts and eating human flesh to survive. But when the local bishop decides to civilise her, mother sets out to bring her back into the fold.
When Lucky McKee’s The Woman (the sequel to 2009’s Offspring) premiered at Sundance in 2011, an enraged audience member suggested it should be burned. After this divisive reception, it took some courage for actress and writer Pollyanna McIntosh, the star of the first two movies, to choose to continue the franchise for her feature-length directorial debut, Darlin’, which works as both a sequel and a stand-alone film. The result is a bold (if somewhat flawed) movie that juggles horror, comedy, social commentary, and coming-of-age sincerity, taking viewers on a rocky but enjoyable ride.
In addition to writing and directing the film, McIntosh reprises her role as the Woman, a dirt-streaked, wild-haired woods dweller who has no qualms about killing to eat. Leaning into the campier aspects of the plot, McIntosh has fun with the character and the kills this time around, leading to some truly hilarious moments, like the Woman’s first ever ride in a car. It’s obvious that McIntosh loves this character, and it’s entertaining to watch her test the boundaries between frightening and funny.
But the real star of the show is Lauryn Canny as the titular Darlin’. From her subtle facial twitches when communicating with The Woman to her wide-eyed innocence as she struggles to integrate back into society, Canny gives a nuanced and heartfelt performance that evokes real empathy from the viewer.
After she is taken in by the church, her budding friendship with fellow orphan Billy (Maddie Nichols) is especially sweet to watch, and not at all what you’d expect from this type of film.
Where Darlin’ stumbles, unfortunately, is in the writing. Darlin’ has a lot to say about a lot of things, and not always as successfully as it hopes. The script struggles under the weight of so many heavy issues, although the central theme—the fight for women’s agency over their own bodies—comes through loud and clear. That ambition is certainly admirable, and in a genre that isn’t always the most sensitive to women’s issues, it’s refreshing to see a film tackle them with clout.
The dialogue can be shaky at times, and for all the film’s subtleties, it’s commentary is sometimes a little too on the nose. Take an early scene in which male nurse Tony (played endearingly by McIntosh’s The Walking Dead co-star Cooper Andrews) reminds the local bishop (Bryan Batt) that the church wouldn’t let him and his same-sex partner adopt a child, calling the situation out as homophobic. Since we later see Tony and his partner together, and since he obviously harbours some resentment for the church, it would have been more impactful for us to slowly figure out this backstory on our own, as we do with Darlin’s decision to leave the woods, rather than stating it outright in one of the character’s first scenes.
Luckily, most of the clunkier dialogue is found in the first act of the film, and there are later moments when the script really shines. As Darlin’ learns to talk, for example, we notice some seeming inconsistencies in her speech; in one scene, talking to the Bishop, she seems almost fluent, but her English is broken and choppy shortly afterwards as she recounts her past to Tony. Since the church has been filling her head with diatribes about female sin, she can talk about the “devil” inside her as if she’s been speaking her whole life, but when she tries to have a normal conversation with a friend, every word feels like a struggle.
Darlin’ is a deeply ambitious film, but one which doesn’t tie everything up as neatly as it perhaps could. That said, the very fact that it’s rough around the edges is part of its charm. It’s a disconcerting film, one which won’t fit neatly into a box thanks to all it’s flailing limbs and chomping, bloody teeth. And one gets the impression that McIntosh wouldn’t want it any other way.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)