[Sundance Review] ‘The Blazing World’ is Avant-Garde Horror Fantasy on Acid

Scientist and playwright Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, published in 1666, marked the first science fiction work by a female. It chronicled a woman’s adventures in an alternate realm after being kidnapped. Actress Carlson Young (Scream: The TV Series) very loosely reimagines Cavendish’s tale for her feature directorial debut. Deep-seated trauma fuels a young woman’s voyage into a bizarre and fantastical realm, where danger awaits at every turn. Young’s avant-garde approach plays like horror-fantasy on acid, losing narrative accessibility in the process.

Young, who also wrote the script with Pierce Brown, stars as Margaret Winter. We first meet Margaret as a young child catching fireflies with her twin sister in the yard of a gorgeous countryside estate while tensions between parents rage inside. While classical music plays and the scene dials up the whimsy, we witness young Margaret follow a bird that’s rammed itself into the side of the house. Dad (Dermot Mulroney) explodes in rage and attacks mom (Vinessa Shaw). Twin sister falls into the pool to drown. Cut to the present, where the grown Margaret loses time, needs pills to get through her day, struggles to connect with others, and drifts through her days with a nagging feeling that there are other realities out there that could provide answers to her residual trauma. She returns home to visit her childhood home before her parents move out for good, prompting an unexpected journey to a different realm where her sister might still be alive.

In this fantastical place, Udo Kier appears as a spiritual guide with overt sinister intent. He sends Margaret on a quest that will either offer her salvation or her undoing. How this quest transpires will be the sticking point for viewers. Young’s assured direction is so detached from reality that it can be inaccessible. The loose metaphors, however nonsensical their approach, are easy to read. Margaret faces off against her issues one at a time, with each task matching its respective childhood trauma.

Carlson Young appears in The Blazing World by Carlson Young, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Visually, it’s nothing short of spectacular, especially for its smaller indie budget. Young, along with production designer Rodney Becker and cinematographer Shane F. Kelly, creates a rich abundance of imaginative set pieces; from a desert oasis to eerie, labyrinthine manors. The looser Young gets with reality, the more innovative and riveting the fantastical elements pop. The downside, though, is that her narrative is so detached from reality that it lacks any emotional punch. Young is expressive enough as Margaret, but nothing allows us to connect with her to lend enough rooting interest. At moments, the story can feel quite hollow.

For such an avant-garde expedition into the strange, the narrative feels under-baked. Young displays an evident talent for visually constructing a story, but it lacks some depth. There’s a superficiality to Margaret’s pain and how it wraps up in the end. How Margaret eventually confronts her father’s abuse, and her mother’s inability to cope with the truth and residual guilt over her sister’s death concludes in a disconcertingly inauthentic and rushed way. If you’re expecting a satisfying exploration of mental health, you’ll find disappointment.

Young displays an insane aptitude for visual direction. As wild and fantastical as The Blazing World is, it’s undermined by weak storytelling. Still, it’s rare to get a film that commits so fully to such symbolism and metaphors in such an imaginative way. The filmmaker’s debut is bold, ambitious, and confident, and refuses to adhere to commercial conformity. It may not hit its emotional marks or substantially reinvent trauma depictions, but it’s hard to ever be bored by a film that plays like a whimsical horror-fairy tale on acid. For Young, it’s a promising start.

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