Fantasia Film Festival 2021 Review: Hellbender

  • Director: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
  • Writer: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser
  • Stars: Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, Lulu Adams

Review

The otherness of women has always fascinated and terrified the public at large. Through the ages, women who cannot, and will not, be controlled or contained are accused of witchcraft. The lore of the witch is often used as an allegory for the, inexplicably, misunderstood complexity of female maturity and Hellbender has come to utilize that in a totally new and punk rock way. Screening at Fantasia Fest, the latest film from The Adams family is not only a coming of age tale, but an unflinching look at mother/daughter relationships.

Mother and Izzy live alone in the woods, enjoying a life living off of nature. They have a very close relationship and even have a two person band together. Going by the name of Hellbender, the two paint their faces, dress up and perform for an audience of none. Izzy has never left their property because Mother says that it is too dangerous. Early on, we see that Mother has magic powers that she uses to monitor Izzy. Now a teenager, Izzy is beginning to crave the company of others and an unfortunately timed appearance by a lost hiker will set into motion events that compel Izzy to do what comes naturally to all teenagers: test their boundaries, sometimes in dangerous ways. 

Showing off what can be done with a small budget, The Adams family (John, Zelda and Toby Poser are all credited as writer, director and star) utilize their real life family bond to create a film that is as original as it is heart-breaking. There is no relationship more complicated than the one between mother and daughter and Hellbender uses this to also explore nature vs. nurture and what power can do to a person’s soul.

It’s a bit difficult to speak much about Hellbender without ruining the story. It all unfolds so seamlessly against the backdrop of family togetherness, the music of Hellbender and the sounds of nature, that by the time the inevitable conclusion hits you still want more. I need more Izzy and Mother. When Mother tells Izzy, “I love you so much, I could eat you up. If you break my heart, I will devour you,’ this is way more than just a trip to a faraway island that she’s speaking of.

The cinematography is gorgeous, the soundtrack is perfect and the story is familiar, yet wholly original. No words are wasted, no glances are meaningless and nothing is filler. Hellbender is the real deal in independent cinema. Recently acquired by Shudder, this is a film you don’t want to miss.

Played as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival

Lisa Fremont

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