[2023 SXSW Review] 'Raging Grace' Boils with Tension and Powerful Social Commentary
With writer/director Paris Zarcilla’s debut feature, Raging Grace, comes a heart-pounding horror film seething with anger over centuries of white cruelty.
Set in the UK, the film follows undocumented Filipina immigrant Joy (Max Eigenmann) and her daughter, Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla). Cleaning houses while she works towards raising money to stay in the country, Joy sneaks her daughter into various places of work where they can both have a bed to sleep in. After taking a well-paying job at a sprawling mansion as a care-worker for a dying old man, Joy thinks she and Grace may have finally landed the opportunity they needed. That is, until they begin to uncover the dark secrets of the mansion’s owners.
True to its title, Zarcilla sets the kettle to the fire right away as we’re introduced to Joy. Here is a kind, thoughtful Filipina woman struggling to build a life for her prankster daughter while being used and abused by ignorant white people. An opening montage gives us a brief though frustrating glimpse into Joy’s life which is anything but joyful as her employers talk down to her, watch her clean without lifting a hand and even have her scoop up their dog’s shit. Yet through it all, Joy forces a smile. Keeping a roof over her daughter’s head is what matters most. Eigenmann breaks your heart with a pained performance that displays someone doing their best to survive in a world that doesn’t see her as an equal.
By minute five, Raging Grace has you wanting to scream at every person mistreating Joy. That anger only continues to grow with antagonists that can’t help but antagonize.
Katherine (Leanne Best), the niece of the comatose old man, Mr. Garrett (David Hayman), is the ultimate Karen. Stuck-up. Dismissive. Insisting that her name be pronounced a certain way and that Joy only cook “simple foods”—meaning white people shit—Best does an impeccable job in getting the audience to loathe this person through a performance that is alternatively enraging and terribly frightening. Best is able to turn her emotions up on a dime, making you believe her character may be about to show some kind of compassion before suddenly transforming into a high-strung monster. Yet Zarcilla shows a knack for writing well-developed characters, finding ways to make us empathize even with Katherine as she describes her long family history in which the women have often been pushed aside by the men.
“You can’t choose your family.”
With themes of being born into a certain lifestyle based on race, culture clashing and the horror over the ways white society has maintained forms of slavery, Raging Grace is a powerful film with uncomfortable yet important messaging. But that’s not the only way in which Zarcilla gets the audience to squirm. The director is more than adept at infusing genuine scares through a relentless tension. Between Joy’s growing frustration and the necessity of hiding Grace from Katherine, Raging Grace bubbles with a boiling intensity that just keeps getting hotter as the film goes on. I could hardly breathe during scenes in which Grace is hiding from Katherine, inches away from being caught. Thankfully, Zarcilla inserts the occasional (and quite effective) jump scare to allow a release in the audience, if only to prep us for the next anxiety-ridden sequence.
And that’s not even including the horrific secrets or surprising turn of events which only work to ratchet up the tension. Watching this film is like being a squeezed dishrag, sweat pushed out of your pores drop by drop.
Raging Grace is also surprisingly funny.
In the vein of Jordan Peele’s Get Out with a setup that vaguely reminded me of French New Extremity film, Livid, Raging Grace is neither as funny as the former or as shocking as the latter, but manages to stir up plenty of laughs. Good thing, too, because Zarcilla’s film is stressful in the best way. Raging Grace is riddled with moments of tongue in cheek humor which points a mocking finger at the ways in which rich white people carry themselves, seemingly in control but ignorant and utterly helpless when they need to do anything on their own. A sweetly charming—and entertaining—performance from Boadilla also had me wanting the world for this mischievous kid who provides a good injection of light into this otherwise dark tale.
The unfortunate issue with Raging Grace is that, despite the title, this story which plays like a powder keg ready to explode fizzles out in a third act that struggles to deliver on the fireworks. What starts as a strong premise builds into a second half that feels somewhat rushed and underwhelming, failing to wrap up certain character threads in ways that satisfy. What should be cathartic only gets halfway there.
Though the beginning may be stronger than the finish, Raging Grace is still a tense ride that whips audiences around through unexpected loops and turns. Creepy. Disturbing. And at times nail-biting, Raging Grace is an impressive debut from Zarcilla that shows his is a fresh new voice to be reckoned with.
By Matt Konopka
Leave a Reply.