Being a teenager and going through that bumbling period of self-discovery and cringe-worthy exploits into one’s burgeoning sexuality is inherently tumultuous...
...Throw in a “hot” stepdad who drinks his own sweat and may or may not be three exceptionally large lampreys from outer space stacked up in a trench coat and a well-groomed five o’clock shadow in lieu of a fake mustache and, well, you’ve got yourself the makings of a real bad time.
In writer/director Braden R. Duemmler’s What Lies Below, Liberty (Ema Horvath) has the misfortune of having just such a bad time. Liberty is an awkward girl at an even more awkward age as she returns home from geology summer camp to her mercurial romance author mother Michelle, played to full developmentally arrested effect by Mena Suvari.
In swift fashion it becomes clear that Liberty, ‘Baby Girl’, as Michelle lilts ad nauseum, is the young woman who prefers to live between the pages while Michelle prefers to live the lives of her breathless, busty heroines in the real world. Michelle even goes so far as to encourage her own daughter to embrace her impending sexuality, telling her she might get what she wants if she capitalizes on it.
Thus, it comes as no surprise when they arrive at their upstate New York cabin by the lake and Michelle upends Liberty’s world, revealing her summer romance in the form of John (Trey Tucker). Quite the reveal it is, as the six-foot plus, dark-haired, blue-eyed, tanned for the gods marine geneticist slowly emerges from the lake to reveal a body only attained by genetic lottery, salad, and an Equinox gym membership. Oh, and lest we forget the Speedo… John opens his mouth to reveal impossibly white teeth and if Liberty was a bit quiet before, she’s fucking speechless now. A tender shoulder touch from John over dinner sets Liberty’s fingers to exploring more than just the pages of her geology books.
Though at first a seemingly clean rip, Michelle slowly pulls off the rest of the boyfriend bandage over the following days revealing with painful leisure the extent of John’s entrenchment in their shared life. Attempting to appease Michelle’s obvious and desperate desire for this summer fantasy to play out, Liberty makes an effort with John, descending into his subterranean lamprey lair to try and bond with him over science.
Liberty quickly makes the astute assertion that John is in fact a ‘weird dude’, to which he peels back his stepdad lips, revealing his flawless stepdad teeth and suggests that weird is in fact cool. I mean, right? Isn’t weird like, the new ‘cool’ with you kids? Well if weird is cool, John gets progressively ‘cooler’ as things develop. John just might be the coolest stepdad with nictitating membranes you’ve ever met.
At its core, What Lies Below is about that very uncomfortable and singular state of being. Navigating the inherent hell of being a teenager where everything is a struggle for recreating a state of constancy that no longer exists. Going through personas and emotions like layers of onion, each tested for authenticity, stripped for bits of truth and then discarded. It’s a process that’s made even more difficult for children of single parents. Double that for only children. It’s only made more difficult when your one constant, your anchor—in Liberty’s case, Michelle—is undergoing her own process of change.
As an adult who underwent an identical process as a child, minus the stepdad being attractive or even interesting enough to be an extraterrestrial, I can attest to its singularity and to its difficulty. I can only liken it to being adrift. There are no maps, no anchors, you’re lucky if there’s even the faintest glimmer of a star. You’re at the mercy of the current, and it’s easy to observe and suggest that this is an opportunity for the kid to assert some agency, but it’s a struggle with no support. This becomes apparent with Liberty as she’s confronted by John’s strangeness.
It’s also no surprise that her state of being adrift intersects with a hefty degree of loss. In one scene Liberty performs what seems to be an annual ritual where small time capsules dedicated to lost loved ones are unearthed and small tokens—sometimes items, sometimes notes—are placed inside and reinterred. When Michelle’s disinterest in maintaining this ritual is met with accusations of never having cared, the relationship takes on a new dynamic as we learn that Michelle’s father gave Liberty the love and attention Michelle herself was never afforded by him. How strange, we might think, to see a mother jealous of a child, but how common and how unspoken it is in equal measure.
It’s small details and relational nuance like this that give the script a bit of shine and depth where it lacks in the horror narrative. We’re given the sensible entitlement of the single mother with a child on the edge of adulthood. We’re given the guilty child who forgoes her own comfort and safety to appease this entitlement. And that friction is electric if a bit short-lived.
At times, however, Below feels like two movies. One is a family drama that would easily be served by a horror aspect, and the other is a muddy sci-fi horror slow-burn that does a better job of ratcheting up the tension and teasing the pieces of the mystery while never really putting the puzzle together.
The score and the cinematography do wonders throughout. Everyone turns in a solid performance, with special attention given to Tucker for exceeding my expectations and rising above the typical fare of CW-style casting for aesthetic over performance. (I said what I said.)
Despite some late-game fumbles with the horror, What Lies Below proves an above-average outing with some genuinely shocking moments. I gasped out loud, and I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve done that while watching a movie at home. Make of that what you will and be sure to check it out when it drops.
What Lies Below comes to VOD and Digital from Vertical Entertainment on December 4th.
By Paul Bauer