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Kid-Thing | Review

Another Little Girl Down the Lane…

Zellner Brothers Kid-Thing PosterWhile the latest feature length film from the Zellner Brothers, Kid-Thing, may not be meant for children, its stammered nature definitely plays itself out as an adolescent affair. Their latest feature (after 2008’s comedic Goliath) is set in the Texas countryside, right outside of Austin, certainly a locale primed for ominous and terrifying happenings. Yet one can’t help but feel that the opaque and ambiguous tone of their latest effort squanders an excellent opportunity to have been a better film.

At the center of Kid-Thing is the 10 year old Annie (Sydney Aguirre), a motherless child left to her own devices while her goat farmer father (Nathan Zellner) engages in demolition derby and wastes a considerable amount of time engaging in inane activities with his equally simple friend, Caleb (David Zellner). A gas leak at her school has forced it to close for an indefinite amount of time and Annie has a lot of time on her hands, which she fills by shooting cow dung and cow carcasses with a paintball gun, shoplifting, and throwing crescent-roll dough at cars. Idle hands are the devil’s playground, and it’s not long before Annie discovers a well in the woods where a woman (the voice of Susan Tyrrell) lies trapped, screaming for help. Accusing the woman (named Esther) of being the devil or a witch, Annie refuses to get “adult” help and instead visits the woman on a daily basis, bringing her food, stolen Capri juice, toilet paper, and a walkie-talkie so that they may correspond. As time goes on, the woman in the well becomes more and more desperate, which prompts Annie to strike a deal with the woman, quid-pro-quo.

The biggest knot with Kid-Thing is the ever present fortuitousness driving it forward. The Zellner Brothers obviously want to explore Annie’s lack of a morality due to her neglectful father and this transparency wears thin immediately after Annie refuses to help Esther (and it should be noted that many children not raised by negligent parents lack a moral compass). As if by accident, the film takes on an uneasy, languid tone, most effective in its silent observations of Annie’s actions and facial expressions. But when forced to interact with others, Aguirre’s wooden line deliveries break the silence as abrasively as a boulder shattering the surface of still waters, which reminds us that the Zellners’ latest feels like an inarticulate version of Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997).

As the woman in the well, the strange and terrifying voice of Susan Tyrrell (the cult actress most famous for her work in the oddity Forbidden Zone, 1982, and John Waters’ Cry-Baby, 1990) proves to be the eeriest and most effective element of Kid-Thing. It’s rather a pity that we never get to see her in the well, which would surely have been one of the year’s most tantalizing screen images. While it’s never explained how exactly she came to be at the bottom of it (as well as why we can never hear the sound of Annie’s items hitting the ground), it’s intriguing to note that Annie’s hesitation in helping stems from the fear that Esther’s the devil, screaming “how do I know I won’t pull you out of hell?” While Annie may suffer from a lack of compassion and moral rationality, her ignorant grasp of Christian mythology stops her from helping a woman about to die alone in an enclosed space.

While Kid-Thing grapples with attempting to deal with the beauty and horror of childhood, its narrative would have been better served by pushing the envelope further in exploring what exactly Annie’s worldview is rather than what it’s lacking. For instance, what if that voice in the well really is preternatural? What if Annie’s imagining things? What’s Annie’s grasp on heaven and hell, religion and God?

While the film’s final moment is indeed satisfactory (though one gets the sense it couldn’t have ended any other way) at the end of the day, Annie’s more of a sad echo of a similar young girl named Rynn, from 1976’s horror oddity The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane starring Jodie Foster as a young girl raising herself (and in comparison to Foster, Aguirre is no competition). But it’s mostly aggravating to note that Kid-Thing is a film featuring an excellent concept with commendable aspects (Tyrrell, a score from The Octopus Project) that fails to live up to its own intentions. However, the Zellner Brothers have managed to create an inadvertent sort of social commentary. After all, Annie isn’t the first Texan in control of vulnerable people using religious ignorance and fear to keep them in the dark.

Reviewed on January 23 at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – NEXT Programme.
83 Mins.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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