Updated: Jul 26, 2020
“It’s not her anymore.” Most people who have had a family member or loved one suffer from dementia have heard or stated some version of that phrase. It’s one of the most profound tragedies on this earth - to have someone close to you slip away from themselves, forget who they are and who you are. However, when the line is uttered in terror by Kay(Emily Mortimer) about her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) in Natalie Erika James’ unsettling and emotional debut feature Relic, it means something decidedly different. Or does it?
Relic begins with Kay and her 20-something daughter Sam(Bella Heathcote,) heading to Edna’s remote home in the Australian countryside in order to investigate her disappearance. Edna’s been gone a couple of days, and no one has any idea where. Signs of her encroaching dementia are all over the empty house when Kay and Sam arrive. Fruit rots in a bowl, food is left out for her long-dead dog. The whole house seems to be in disrepair, a mysterious black mold grows over everything. Soon enough, Edna returns, completely uncooperative when asked where she went. She bears a mysterious bruise on her chest. Edna’s mind continues to decline, but is something more sinister going on? The house creaks, Edna mutters evilly to herself, and wanders around in the night. The black mold continues to spread, and what does an old cottage in the woods have to do with all this?
Those who come to Relic for a plot with definite answers are to be disappointed, and at times it feels like James and her co-writer Christian White have written themselves a mystery with no solution. Fortunately, the plot of Relic doesn’t seem to be the point. James understands that some of the best horror films use the supernatural as a tool to shed light on all-too-real emotion, and at this she succeeds with flying colors. The decline of Edna’s mind, and the pain of her family as they watch her slip away, is reflected in the film’s horrific scenes, and its dramatic ones as well. James’ cast is more than up to the task, with Mortimer and Nevin especially believable as lost mother and bereaved daughter. “Where is everybody?” Edna asks, as she buries a family photo album beneath the dirt, where the strange mold can’t get it. It’s a question packed with meaning, as is Kay’s answer(“they’re here. I’m here,") as she holds her mother tight.
That’s not to say that Relic doesn’t contain scares, as James makes clever and effective use of her relatively small budget to bring on the terror when needed. Claustrophobics will probably watch the film’s standout sequence, revolving around a hidden passageway, through their fingers. But James never lets us forget that at the heart of the film is family. The pain of losing family to dementia, and the value and love in sticking with them through it. In Relic’s sublime final moments, this message shines through without a word uttered. The film is haunting, yet tender. You come to be scared, but will stay to be moved.
Relic is rated R. It is available to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and Apple.