“And you said that I was naive
And I thought that I was strong
I thought, ‘hey, I can leave, I can leave’
Oh but now I know that I was wrong”
-Lisa Loeb, “Stay”
In Zach Gayne’s Homewrecker, which had its world premiere at the Fantasia Festival, it’s not what you say that’ll get you killed, it’s what you don’t – or can’t – say. Namely, it’s an inability to say ‘no’ to, or set any sort of boundaries with, a particularly pushy or demanding person. It’s no wonder, then, that this tight-set bottle story takes place in Toronto. It’s my hometown, a city that I love, but it’s also a city whose entire ethos seems to be ‘avoid conflict at literally any cost.’ In Homewrecker, that’s a great way to get your brains exposed by a sledgehammer.
Interior designer Michelle (Alex Essoe, of Starry Eyes) is at the gym when she needs to borrow a tampon. When a stranger named Linda (Precious Chong) pipes up and offers one while bizarrely oversharing about no longer needing them due to menopause and sporting the kind of crazy eyes that set off alarm bells, Michelle accepts and goes about her day. Later, as she’s doing work in a coffee shop, Michelle encounters Linda again, who joins Michelle uninvited and badgers her about her life, Michelle’s new marriage, her desire to have a baby, and all but forces Michelle to come over and consult about a new design for Linda’s home. But when Michelle accepts, it becomes clear that Linda’s wackadoo idea of friendship includes a drugging, a hit to the head, and forced confinement.
Gayne ratchets up the discomfort in Homewrecker to the point that it feels like a needle under your fingernail. In other horror films, you’re screaming through the screen for Michelle to get out of the house, to break a window, to do anything but run up the damn stairs. All those things happen as Michelle attempts to break free of Linda. But early on in the film, you’re also screaming for Michelle to grow a spine, put her foot down, and not accept a bowl of ice cream while watching a Patrick Swayze movie, or play a board game with the woman who won’t let her leave in a futile attempt to defuse the conflict. Gayne unsubtly lets you know that something is off about Linda, and her behaviour from her first scene onward only confirms that fact. Michelle catches on to this fairly early on as well, and is immediately bothered and suspicious of Linda. But the point is that Michelle can’t bear to offend Linda, even as Linda goes from host to captor to assailant.
Essoe plays the mousy Michelle perfectly. Her half-hearted protests to Linda’s increasingly bizarre requests and behaviour, leading to a too-late explosion when she finally hits her breaking point, are immensely relatable. But it’s Chong that anchors this film. Those crazy eyes are front-and-centre for almost the whole running time. The moments where Chong looks directly into the camera (especially, in one of the most hilarious and chilling moments of this or any other film this year, while performing and recontextualizing Lisa Loeb’s ‘Stay’) make you feel like she’s right there with you. Essoe and Chong share writing credits on the film, so that may be why their interplay and their reactions seem so natural and authentic.
The version of the Homewrecker that I watched had some temp music and titles, but the film’s dementedly-jaunty vibe still comes through. Linda’s bubbliness more than borders on manic, and the music, cinematography, and overall tone of Homewrecker changes abruptly from scene to scene to match. In Linda’s cramped and cluttered house, the layout and music are disorienting, especially when the film mirrors Michelle’s drugged state. Though it takes some time to get there, Homewrecker also boasts some minimalist but effective practical effects as well, including some head trauma that might make Ari Aster blush.
Homewrecker does something really interesting, as a horror film. It shows how people – many women, in particular – prioritize being polite over being safe. It’s a concept that’s usually expressed between women and men, like not wanting to refuse that drink (that might be drugged) in order to avoid offending the dude (that might be a predator) who offered it. Using two women in these roles shows another way that a person might be caught off-guard, and might also have something to say about how platonic friendships between women are formed and, in this case, weaponized. Ultimately, I think the film’s ending could be punched up a little and the twist in the story feels slightly tacked-on to me, but that’s a minor quibble after the rollercoaster that Gayne sends you on here.
What do you get if you mash up elements of Stephen King’s Misery with Onur Turkel’s Catfight (another film about two problematically-linked women that strikes a similar tone)? For my money, a shriekingly funny and simultaneously upsetting film with a dead-serious message about agency, self-confidence, and self-awareness. Gayne, Chong, and Essoe have crafted, in Homewrecker, a story that’s derivative of almost nothing I’ve seen before, and cultivates slow-burn discomfort in the most delicious of ways.
The Fantasia International Film Festival runs through August 1, 2019, Learn more about Fantasia 2019 at their official website.