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Winner of the SXSW narrative grand jury award, Raging Grace is a nimble film that extrapolates the immigrant experience into horror and thriller territory. The drama is anchored by the strong performances of Max Eigenmann and Jaeden Paige Boadilla. Director Paris Zarcilla does a good job of fusing genre conventions with potent social commentary.
Writer and director Paris Zarcilla juggles down-to-earth fears, nightmarish horror, and pointed satire with an ease that makes Raging Grace stand out. It’s a bold feature debut that works on its own terms, making sure the themes are inherent to these characters and the dynamics of their relationships rather than thrust upon them.
Joy is an undocumented immigrant who desperately needs the money she makes as a live-in caretaker at the wealthy Garrett estate. She’s a hard worker, doesn’t mean any harm, and would do anything for her daughter, but she’s always walking on eggshells, fearing anyone will discover her status and send her back to the Philippines. When she starts sneaking into places she shouldn’t and noticing some suspicious behavior from her employer, Katherine (Leanne Best), it’s not long before she uncovers a dark secret that puts her and Grace in danger.
Maxine Eigenmann grabs our sympathies right away with her convincing portrayal of a woman fighting for her life while still remaining true to her Filipino customs. Jaeden Paige Boadilla is similarly impressive as Joy’s daughter, capturing her young age and defiant nature with an undeniable talent. Best, on the other hand, is an everyday monster who knows exactly how to exploit her position of power over Joy and whose actions are motivated by nothing more than greed. Zarcilla tosses in some lightweight fright tactics to keep the suspense heightened, but the movie’s main horror comes from its ability to place us directly into Joy’s shoes.
Paris Zarcilla’s feature debut makes a strong case for him as an exciting new genre voice. The prime wire film extrapolates the horrors of immigration into a domestic thriller, making for a disturbing and genuinely scary movie. It’s helped by a terrific cast and the fact that it doesn’t resort to conventional ghosts or creatures to spook us.
Undocumented Filipino Joy (Maxene Eigenmann) works several housekeeping gigs a week, staying in her employers’ posh homes while she watches over their rambunctious little girl Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla). To avoid being discovered and sent back to the Philippines, she must keep her identity a secret even from her employer/host, Katherine (Leanne Best).
Eigenmann is outstanding as Joy; she manages to convey her desperation without diminishing her dignity. Her face and body language speak volumes as she tries to hide her dread at the possibility of being sent home at any moment. The fact that her daughter is such a rascal also helps to create some genuine tension in the movie.
Leanne Best and David Hayman are also great as the adults in this harrowing tale. While Raging Grace does sway from its patient pacing for the final act, it is still an impressively effective film. Its greatest strength is its deeply personal story and perspective, however, and the performances from its excellent cast.
The film’s first half is quite effective at establishing its characters and themes. The stark socio-political messaging works alongside plenty of traditional scares to create a tense, brooding haunted house thriller. It’s the kind of movie that would be easy to dismiss as simply being another run-of-the-mill horror, but its dark premise is a welcome change from the usual formula.
It also helps that director Paris Zarcilla has a firm hand on the tiller throughout most of the picture. He swaps between fast-paced, choppy edited scenes of Joy hard at work cleaning wealthy London houses to long, slow creeping shots through the mansion she stays in at night. His use of light and the eerie score by Jon Clarke add to the dreary, haunted essence of his setting.
Moreover, Zarcilla also takes the time to let us get to know his main players. As a result, when the film does veer off course in its final act, it still makes sense as a whole. For example, David Hayman brings a chilling intensity to the role of Mr. Garrett, a character you can’t help but think has something sinister up his sleeve. Likewise, Max Eigenmann is a sympathetic and strong lead while Jaeden Paige Boadilla brings a natural warmth to Grace. In short, Raging Grace is a worthy debut for writer-director Paris Zarcilla.
Raging Grace is a tense, gripping thriller that is not only expertly directed by Paris Zarcilla but is also well written. Jon Clarke’s percussive score adds to the film’s tense atmosphere as it builds, dropping troubling hints about past traumas that take on a heartbreaking significance in the finale. Joel Honeywell’s cinematography further accentuates the haunted vibe by making Katherine’s house feel like a trap, with its colorless palette and ominous furnishings.
The film also manages to balance its dark themes with moments of light-heartedness, mainly when Joy has to go to extreme lengths to hide her daughter. Zarcilla and her actors expertly navigate these scenes, with Eigenmann giving a performance that conveys Joy’s desperation without making her a victim. Her mischievous daughter is a constant source of unease with her love for pranks and her ability to elude detection, leading to nail-biting cat and mouse sequences.
The film is a welcome addition to the growing number of horror films that look at servitude and the exploitation of immigrants. Although, in the end, it may not be able to fully live up to its initial promise. Its ending is a bit too jarring, and it fails to maintain the subtlety it has established up until that point. Nevertheless, it is still a fantastic debut feature from director Paris Zarcilla.