When Holly’s classroom peers call her “the witch,” she meekly shrugs it off. It’s not the least flattering slur with which the shy, soft-spoken 15-year-old has been bullied, and it beats people complaining about how she smells. It even may, at a certain level, be true. When Holly’s seemingly psychic abilities save her from a fatal disaster at school, her status in the community shifts from outcast to otherworldly icon — as if Carrie White had actually been crowned prom queen, and not bucketed with blood. Stephen King’s antiheroine comes to mind more than once in Fien Troch’s elusive, intriguing teen drama “Holly,” which plays a little like his story stripped of any outright horror, and only the everyday vanities and failings of humanity in its place.
Still, as a portrait of our collective ability to exploit and destroy any precious resource — human or otherwise, real or imagined — “Holly” proves plenty unnerving anyway, even as Troch’s script slinks around the question of supernatural intervention. It’s the director’s first feature since her 2016 breakthrough film “Home” — a hard-edged, vérité-style ensemble portrait of teenage dysfunction and parental abuse — and from one vantage point, “Holly” could be read as an extension of that film’s grainy realism, portraying desperate people’s willingness to seek miracles where there are none. From another, it’s a study of the miracle worker’s all-too-mortal frailty, presented in deadpan kitchen-sink mode. It’s compelling either way, and though “Holly’s” equivocation slips a little into vagueness by its denouement, its genre-bridging oddness, buoyed by a Venice competition berth, could draw distributor interest.
More from Variety
When Holly (Cathalina Geeraerts) calls in sick to school one ordinary morning, she’s not merely feeling under the weather. “Bad things are going to happen today,” she whispers into the phone, and sure enough, they do: an accidental fire on the school campus that leaves 10 students dead. Months later, she hasn’t yet come to terms with her premonition, but do-gooder teacher Anna (Greet Verstraete) senses in her a benevolent spiritual power. Holly’s very touch, she insists to her colleagues, can lift people’s moods and diminish their suffering. She’s further convinced of this when she invites Holly to volunteer on a picnic for the bereaved friends and family of the dead. Many of the mourners profess themselves comforted by the girl’s quiet, gentle presence. But are kindness and empathy superpowers, or is something uncanny afoot?
It isn’t long before Anna is dragging Holly to any number of her charitable extracurrical endeavors, presenting the introverted teen as a kind of emotional healer, and word of her alleged influence spreads. When one stricken mother offers Holly a small fee for her time, she accepts, and other applicants soon follow suit. As a hard-up child of a broken home — cared for predominantly by her pragmatic older sister Dawn (Maya Louisa Sterkendries) — she’s glad of the easy money, though the increasingly pushy, self-aggrandizing Anna is horrified that her discovery has been so swiftly corrupted.
Troch’s lean, deliberately distanced script keeps us guessing even as to the exact nature of what Holly’s “special” abilities, to use the term her teachers and elders keep throwing at her, are supposed to be. If she has the gift of second sight, why has it only struck once? Does she have physical healing powers or merely psychological ones? Holly goes with the flow, but she’s ever more doubtful that her avoidance of the blaze was anything more than exceptional good luck, and begins to crumble under the strain of being all things to all people. Geeraerts’s excellent performance keeps the character palpably, painfully human amid the fey mythos being built around her, her roiling interior anxieties emerging in tight, twitchy body language and on her guarded, unsmiling face, often in unsparing closeup.
If anything, “Holly” could zero in a little more on its protagonist’s pinched interior life, which revolves around her sister, her unstable mother (Els Deceukelier) and her neurodivergent friend Bart (Felix Heremans, magnetic in a slightly underdeveloped role), who’s more dependent on her stabilizing companionship than many of her newfound followers. But she must harbor deeper desires and daydreams that are kept secret here. Adolescent sexuality, or even asexuality, is hardly addressed; we’re also left to speculate as to how Holly’s once-dismissive contemporaries at school regard her strange, quasi-saintly elevation.
If there are missing patches in the bigger picture, however, the smaller one is filled in with curiosity and care, the film’s subtly permeating atmospherics constantly balancing the banal with the possibly divine. As in “Home,” Frank van den Eeden’s cinematography aims for casually composed, off-the-cuff authenticity, often half-slicing characters out of the frame for candid effect; the icy, tingling synths of Johnny Jewel’s score, however, hint at eerier dimensions to Holly’s otherness. “Hope is among us,” Anna captions a photo of the unremarkable-looking teen. Awash with grief for lives either lost or unrealized, “Holly” articulates a world in which such a statement feels positively fantastical.
Best of Variety