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Simon Read [Celluloid 10.11.16] horror thriller

Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl is one of those maddening films which starts off with such great promise, but gradually falls apart, and finally falls victim to its own lack of focus and ambition.

Writer/director A.D. Calvo's latest feature is a kind of psychological thriller with supernatural overtones, a film which deals in themes of guilt and isolation, showing us a character's slow decent into madness, and for the first 45 minutes it really works quite well - an atmospheric mood-piece containing some well-observed and subtle performances. Unfortunately, as we watch the film we also watch it start not to work, as it shifts ill-advisedly into a bizarro funhouse of horror film cliches, eventually overdosing on banality. It's not a total disaster, but it is a rather frustrating experience.

The story concerns a timid teenage girl named Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) who, escaping her abusive mother and step-father, moves into the creepy townhouse of her equally creepy old aunt, Dora. Adele is paid a small wage to cook and clean, run errands and shop for groceries. Dora, a largely unseen character, remains ever locked in her room, accepting meals on a tray left outside her door. Adele is curious, but understands that the old woman is agoraphobic, still suffering through the anxiety of some mysterious past trauma.

Bored and lonely, Adele spends her free time wandering around town listening to her Walkman, until she meets Beth (Quinn Shephard), a cool and confident, arty goth chick. Beth's rebellious nature, her natural style and disregard for authority, inspire Adele to rebel herself, and pretty soon she's skipping her chores and stealing grocery money to spend on clothes. They begin a tentative, fumbling romance, although in a key scene Adele questions if this is really happening, or whether she's simply imagining things. Adele grows more confident, but Dora is becoming restless and irritable, and Beth, we sense, may have a sinister agenda of her own...

The film is set in 1980s rural Connecticut at the height of the Regean era, and director Calvo uses this backdrop to great effect in establishing a sense of desolation and dread. The landscape is wintery, cold and windswept, and the TV seems only ever to play speeches by the Gipper, babbling insane lies. Adele is constantly on edge, never permitted the opportunity to relax - and we feel much the same way. Early on she admits to feeling as though people half-like and half-hate her, and we get the impression that she doesn't fit into this harsh world, despite (or because of) her essentially kind nature.

As the story progresses Adele becomes harder by degrees, finding confidence and a new sense of self through her relationship with Beth. But this proves a double-edged sword, as she also becomes reckless and cruel, setting herself up for a terrible fall. Aunt Dora scolds her from behind the bedroom door, chastising her, but any reticence is short-lived, and soon she's back with Beth, drinking booze, exploring her latent sexual desires. The two leave town on a road trip where secrets are revealed, and Adele returns to discover that something terrible has occurred during her brief absence. From here the film becomes increasingly fractured, taking on a supernatural edge as Adele questions reality, segueing into a kind of fevered, hallucinatory madness.

All of this is great. The tone of the film fits perfectly with this character study and Wilhelmi's performance is strong and agreeably understated, perfectly establishing her character's vulnerability, then taking time to develop her slow transformation into someone altogether less innocent. The way the film is shot and edited, and the intense, often jarring sound design, all contribute to a genuinely spine-chilling set up. The period setting and use of folk and classic rock ("Don't Fear The Reaper") help project the feel of a forgotten past, of a haunted empty world where bad things happen. During the film's best moments there are shades of early John Carpenter and Dario Argento - ominous deserted streets, the minutiae of the everyday appearing threatening and disturbing.

Where the film seriously falls down is in its last 20 minutes, and this is a real shame. It's a short movie (about 75 minutes), and it feels short, but just as we're starting to get involved in the story, we're presented with an incredibly rushed final act during which it feels as though Calvo lost patience and just went haywire. Almost out of left-field the film switches gear, turning from a slow-burn psychological thriller into something which is, frankly, pretty goofy.

It's not impossible to employ a dramatic tonal shift in this sort of film in order to reflect a character's state of mind (Polanski's early work is the perfect example), and perhaps it's simply the curse of the low-budget indie film, but this change in direction feels unconvincing, even lazy. I sat with a rictus grin on my face as ghosts and monsters started to invade the house, before we were confronted with a final twist so desperately overworked and trite that it threatened to completely undermine the good work which had come before.

There is some great stuff here, and while I'm loath to criticize a film simply for a botched finale, there is no getting away from the giant misstep in the final act of Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl. I'm sure it looked good on the page, and there was probably some way of realizing it without it appearing so absurd, but I can't help but think of this film as a wasted opportunity.

It felt like a delicious starter and main course, followed by a plastic cup of artificially sweetened jell-o pudding - not inherently bad in and of itself, but a severe let-down.

Recommended Release: House of Dust

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