THE VOICES ** USA 2020 Dir: Nathaniel Nuon. 108 mins
It’s tough watching a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It can also be hard to watch a film that seems to have elements attached to it to give it meaning. Working the rich vein of birth horror and the terror of everyday events you have the non-horror, monstrously long film THE VOICES (2020).
Nathaniel Nuon’s feature debut works well technically, it is, after all, wonderfully photographed. Unfortunately, it dissolves into clichéd characters, muddled multi-timelines and poor one note acting.
The story concerns Lilly (Valerie Jane Parker), a blind woman who can hear the voices of the deceased. She becomes pregnant, only to discover spirits defending her unborn child that may inherit her supernatural abilities. Sound familiar? The film plays like it should be a romantic, woman overcomes the evils of her sisters (in this case spirits) to get her Prince Charming.
Lilly is both blinded and orphaned as a young girl, following a car accident that claimed her parents’ lives. Raised by her aunt Becca (Jordan Ladd), Lilly soon discovers that she has the ability to hear ghosts in the absence of her eyesight. The film spends the first hour depicting Lilly at various stages of her maturity – from a child (Chloe Romanski), to a preteen (Jenna Harvey), to a teenager (Romy Reiner), and finally as an adult (Valerie Jane Parker). Lilly meets and makes friends with Madison (Claire Marie Burton), whose parents turn out to be child abductors. In fact, the parents appear as abductors in young Lilly’s life, only to have the potential crime averted. We go through the perils of parental care and impending child birth. Through it all, runs the line of the voices that appear in Lilly’s head, either warning her or letting her walk across the road with the help of a young ghost boy. When a medium enters the scene and informs Lilly that her pregnancy is doomed and her infant has yet to develop a heartbeat. Such are the terrors of pregnancy, with the ghosts and child abductors that lurk on every street corner in middle class America with its palatial houses, green lawns, and play grounds.
Valarie Jane Parker tries hard. She comes off as being trusting and empty headed, sadly, and allows herself to be put into predicaments. It is very close to a Cinderella style story: all I want to do is go to a dance and have children. There is no purpose to these people, even the supporting roles. The Prince Charming manifests as Lilly’s husband William (Jonathon Stoddard). William met Lilly when they were teens, later marrying after he had a successful career building a research empire. William lacks the white horse, though. He plays his virtual smile and voice almost to the point of having the actor’s role be an audition reel for Superman. The Man of Steel (no matter how appealing) does not belong in a film of this style. In a truly maudlin moment, William breaks down when he raises his voice and subsequently goes out for a breath of fresh air after Lilly has been abducted.
I don’t usually mention gaffs in film making since independent films don’t have the resources that studios do. This one is sexist. As the film follows Lilly, it seems she goes through breast reduction. To put it bluntly, the teenage Lilly has larger breasts than the fully grown Lilly. This could have been covered by wardrobe.
Secondly, the film relays the attitudes of where it was shot, which was Alabama. It portrays the inevitability of child birth as a monstrous act, even to the point of including a birth class scene, complete with explanations of what will happen and how you have to grow together for Lilly and William. In what could be the equivalent of the graphic anti-abortion signs of protests, Lilly is in the vehicle in a car park while husband William goes back to the classroom to retrieve the gift pack. Lilly is confronted by a female ghost bearing a bloody child complete with umbilical cord attached.
THE VOICES (2020), while technically lovely to watch, is not a film that conjures up scares. It clouds the story with platitudes of self-reliance and cardboard characters populating their sterile world by defeating the enemy that lurks on every street corner, as represented by a van or the evil spirit. Truly a film about the middle class nightmare of losing it all. After the excruciating running time you just don’t care.
Review by Terry Sherwood