MOVIE REVIEW – Finnish director Hanna Bergholm makes her stunning debut with this unique movie – most reminiscent of the classic horror film The Fly – which explores the question of maternal responsibility through an eerily apt metaphor.
A mother’s job is never done, whether she raises a good child or a monster. But where that job leads is another matter entirely. Horror has a long and complicated history with motherhood, from classics like Psycho (1960) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to slasher films like Friday the 13th. (Finnish director Hanna Bergholm’s feature film debut, Raising, pushes the concept of daughters becoming like their mothers and how they confront it to the extreme.
This family nest is toxic…
There is once alluring and frightening about the protective nature of motherhood and its potentially destructive power, reminding us of the old saying: ‘I brought you into the world. I can take you out of it.” What follows from this premise in Belgrom’s film is a disturbing and surprisingly humorous detour into body horror and learned behaviour.
In Raising, we are introduced to a seemingly perfect suburban family, so perfect that, apart from the two children, Tina (Siiri Solalinna) and Matias (Oiva Ollila), the mother and father are known only as Mother (Sophia Heikkilä) and Father (Jani Volanen), as if to suggest that this is, in fact, the beginning and end of their identities, even though they do not correspond to their roles. As a social media influencer, Mom makes videos of her perfect family life disgustingly nauseatingly (Heikkilä is brilliant in part), creating a repulsive sense of falsity. Her pastel-coloured house, decorated with flowers – and it is indeed her house – feels artificial, a nest made for display but not for us to live in, a kind of gingerbread house that sets the stage for the film’s fairytale approach.
The illusion of perfection is shattered when a large black bird flies in through the window and wreaks havoc on Mum’s carefully tended environment. When Tinja catches the bird in a towel and nurses it, Anya takes it from her, wringing the bird’s neck and telling her daughter to throw it in the organic waste bin. The absurdity of the moment is underscored by the mocking politeness and staged perfection seen moments earlier. Later, Tinja checks the trash can and discovers that the bird has disappeared. She goes to the woods near her house and finds the dying bird with a single egg, which she takes home and cares for.
A mother bird and her egg
While Tinja imitates her mother’s duty with the egg and keeps it hidden in her room, Mum does the same with Tinja, though her imitation is repulsive, while her daughter is lovely. Mum’s love and attention are a front for her social media, adoring the public. As she urges her daughter not only to compete iut win the upcoming gymnastics tournament, it becomes clear that she sees Tinja as an extension of herself and a chance to fix her failed skating career.
Playing flawlessly as mother and daughter, Heikkilä and Solalinna complement each other beautifully with subtle performances that mimic love but portray the daughter’s fear of her mother and the mother’s barely veiled contempt for her daughter’s astonishing sensitivity. Bergholm’s camera operates with professional close-ups, lingering over the faces and capturing with great flair their most subtle emotions of selfishness, cluelessness, fear and horror, or of trying to keep all these emotions in check.
When Tinja discovers that her mother is having an affair with a local plumber, Tero (Nordin), the mother entrusts her with keeping the secret, explaining to her that this is the first time she has ever discovered what it feels like to love someone truly. Tinja’s father and her husband are made to look like fools. The way Tinja’s face at this moment reflects a kind of barely concealed shock and disgust at the realisation of what her mother is like and what values (or rather, worthlessness) she represents sets the tone for the sometimes shocking and sometimes amusing but certainly deeply satirical events that follow.
For true horror fans as well
When the egg hatches, a monstrous creature emerges, making any horror fan snap with satisfaction. The human-bird hybrid, which Tinja names Alli after a lullaby, is an actual horror creation created by Gustav Hoegen and his team, who have worked on Prometheus (2012), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) and every Star Wars film since 2015. However, Alli is not “just” a scary monster but a fully-fledged character in the movie. The more she develops and becomes emotionally aware, the more Tinja is forced to accept the responsibility of early motherhood, as indicated by the fact that Anya has gone through the same thing.
When Alli begins to live with Tinja’s closely guarded feelings of anger and jealousy towards her gym teammates, her attention-seeking brother and her frustratingly distant father, Tinja tries to reject this creature she has hatched. Still, it has already wet her beak with blood. Hatching is a horror tale that is not only proficient as a metaphor but a hard-hitting story with a multi-layered moral message and a very concise yet ambiguous ending. One interesting question, for example, is whether Tinja’s negative emotional expressions through Allie ultimately come from the same place as Anya’s emotional attachments created through her social media persona and followers?
They both become monsters
It is partly about a shared desire for freedom but also about turning fiction that previously existed only in their heads into reality. Although Keltetés is more empathetic towards Tinja than Mother, Bergholm and the strong lead performances make it clear that both women see their own ‘coming out as a burden, as things that have been given life and that have ultimately taken away their sense of ownership over their lives. Both mother and child become veritable monsters as their fairy tale collapses around them, spilling over into a nightmarish examination of the effects of motherhood.
Anyone who buys into a horror film about such mothering and the dysfunctional family model, with effective cinematic devices most reminiscent of Cronenberg’s films, will not be disappointed with The Raising.