There’s a reason why we keep coming back to the “Something’s not right with that kid” subgenre of horror movies: there are few things that unease us more than getting stuck with a kid who you’re legitimately fearful of. However, with Brandon Christensen‘s latest Z, there’s much more going on here – which feels equally classical and refreshing within the evil kid subgenre ranks.
In what would make for a perfect double feature pairing with Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real, Z tells the story of mom Beth (portrayed authentically by Keegan Connor Tracy) who is coping with raising her loner son Josh (Jett Klyne) who seems to be disliked by both classmates and teachers and “makes up” an imaginary friend, simply named “Z”. Soon after Z enters the family’s lives, Josh gets suspended at school for vulgar language and harassing his peers, and Beth – along with her husband/Josh’s dad Kevin (Sean Rogerson) – is told to be “the friend Josh needs” while they try to figure out what is really going on with him. As you would imagine, Josh isn’t totally the one to blame here.
What works exceptionally well is that, similar to The Babadook, Z‘s narrative is framed around Beth (instead of Josh) as we sympathize with her parenting woes, as well as dealing with her sickly mother at home (who Beth and her sister sometimes resent) and Kevin, who isn’t as wholly involved with Josh’s day-to-day life as she is and tends to cover for Josh too frequently. As the severity of the incidents surrounding Josh and Z increase – including a super-effective jolt involving a falling child a la Orphan – the film takes an interesting turn into Beth’s own personal history with imaginary friends, and she begins to crumble into her own isolation.
Z‘s cinematography and visual scares are nothing short of appealing. The family’s large, beautiful home is captured in cold, wide shots that feel rightfully uninviting to the viewer. A home on fire almost resembles an artistic painting, while a black marker drawing of Z on Josh’s walls feel menacing. A close-up shot that lingers on a recently deceased corpse for a few seconds too long is subtle, yet very disturbing. Lastly, yes, you will get to see glimpses of the “imaginary” Z that are so quick you may blink and miss them, which are expertly placed. All and all, Christensen knows how to craft satisfyingly solid scares that, apart from working visually, are also well-timed.
The rare issues I have with Z come down to a couple of subgenre tropes and an ending that perhaps could have been shaved off by a few minutes. While I appreciated Beth and Kevin’s disagreements about properly raising their son (and what they think may be a possible mental illness) the way-too-laidback dad character trope is sort of played out. Kevin (at times) is a bit frustrating when he doesn’t believe Beth, even though she’s around Josh (and Z) more often than he is. The family therapist, while absolutely trying his best to help, sometimes offers them strange advice that feels more plot-driven than realistic. Finally, there’s one particular climatic and tragic moment in which I thought the film had ended that gave me chills…but then it continued for an extra five minutes, and I wondered why. Ultimately, it was fine – but I would have been much more afflicted by what I thought was the conclusion.
Z is definitely worth a recommendation. If you’re into a well-performed, character-driven story with well-crafted scares sprinkled at various points throughout, grab a crust-less peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of 2% milk and treat yourself to Z.