dir. Jeremiah Kipp
There is a strange, intriguing tone to Jeremiah Kipp’s Slapface – a whimsical, coming-of-age fairy tale engulfed by a heavy sheen of grief – that makes the viewer lean in close and continuously question what is real and what is imagined. An adaptation of Kipp’s 2017 short film of the same name, it gives the impression that there is much left unsaid, as though large chunks of the character’s experiences have been withheld; a storytelling device that is compelling when framed around the traumatized young boy at the centre.
Lucas (August Maturo) suffers from bullying at the hands of nearly everyone he encounters. We meet him as he and his brother / caregiver Tom (Mike Manning) are playing “slapface,” the basics of which are straightforward: they slap one another as hard as they can for as long as they can. At one point, Tom defends the game to his shocked girlfriend as a means of “clearing the shit away,” and it’s apparent that the physical pain caused by slapface is an attempt to overpower the grief they both feel at their parent’s sudden death.
While Tom has convinced himself that this game helps them both, Lucas finds his own means of coping in a rundown building, drawn there by trails of bright blue, cactus-like flowers; a sort of breadcrumb trail to a Witch’s hideout. Once there Lucas bonds with a terrifying figure, whose maternal protectiveness evolves from tender to violent as it targets those bullying Lucas.
Taking the witch-in-the-woods trope Slapface creates an alarming, impactful story that will resonate with anyone who has experienced bullying or abuse. August Maturo’s powerful portrayal of Lucas sees his anguish and anger variously controlled, internalized, tamped down and overwhelmed by Tom’s more outward explosions. The audience may think they know what is happening, but Kipp often defies expectations with the direction of his well-written script, and ultimately, we are left to uncover the truth right alongside Lucas, culminating in a devastatingly beautiful final frame that resonates long past the credits.