About thirty minutes into The Falling, my poor sister overheard me yelling “oh shit” at what was transpiring on my screen. Directed and written by Carol Morley, the film is a potpourri of genres and styles, mixing styles of horror and female coming-of-age stories. Morley cannot be faulted for the sheer ambition on display, there’s just a feeling of “what could have been” left dangling by the film’s end.
Abby (Florence Pugh) and Lydia (Maisie Williams) are best friends, co-conspirators in life despite their differences. A tragedy strikes, and the school they attend changes drastically. Lydia begins to experience fainting spells, which quickly starts making its rounds through her fellow female students. Unable to pinpoint the nature of the affliction and if it’s a true ailment or all in their heads, the school’s foundation is threatened.
It would seem that 2015 cinema is having a bit of a moment in under-the-radar films portraying teenage girls with a hard-earned accuracy. From Sisterhood of the Night, Girlhood, and Diary of a Teenage Girl, it would seem that filmmakers are finally getting the chance to portray teenage girls as more than just idealized objects for teenage boys. Being a teenage girl is tough–there’s a consistent undercurrent of scrutiny, you’re expected to behave more maturely than male counterparts (who are allowed to live under the “boys will be boys” creed well into their teens) and are constantly told how to act, dress and live. It’s tough. It’s what makes finding a likeminded friend integral, and there is parts of Abby and Lydia’s relationship that might seem shockingly intimate but will likely be the envy of girls watching. Lydia has Abby’s undivided affection, and vice versa. They adore one another, and between that they’re able to survive unloving families and living in an oppressive and hostile school system.
Even when the fainting spells begin (which instantly bring to mind The Crucible), the film retains a sense of relatability. There’s a moment at the beginning of the film where Abby is asked to the front of the class and told to kneel so that her teacher can measure the length of her skirt–as someone who had a teacher threaten to measure the length of her shorts in high school (gym shorts, I might add) it’s bizarre to think that a film based so heavily is mysticism and set 1969 can also breathe in a sense of authenticity. I got it.
It’s these moments where I wish the film could have lingered more. The moments of friendship, the moments of turbulent adolescence–that’s when Morley shines as a filmmaker. The fainting spells add an intriguing horror element, particularly the ways in which the girls’ writhing and convulsing is choreographed, and it speaks to the larger themes of womanhood when the severe Lydia is forcibly ostracized as a bad influence, but it takes away from some of the subtler moments. Worth celebrating is the utilization of music and just how integral it becomes to not just the story but to the actual storytelling and the way it ebbs and flows with the mood and imagery. It sets up not just the period that the film is taking place in, but it also creates a heightened atmosphere. Tracey Thorn did a fantastic job setting the eerie, ghost story tonality, and the score coupled with Agnes Godard’s dipped-in-gray cinematography allows for the film to be captivating even when the story itself lags.
The leading performances by Maisie Williams and Florence Pugh are also key, with Maxine Peak also giving a strong turn as Lydia’s mother. Williams and Pugh have a believable chemistry, and Pugh is a delightful find. She’s as charismatic as the story needs her to be and compelling without her character having to do anything dramatic. Her mere interactions with other characters hook you with natural watchability and will leave audiences craving more
Williams, in contrast, is moody and intense. Where Abby is carefree, a wild child, Williams has her nose in a book and is judgmental. Williams has been developing into a very promising young actress for a few years now in her role as fan favorite Arya on HBO’s Game of Thrones, and The Falling allows her to unhinge as her storyline creeps darker and darker. It is not an easy film to watch, and some of the characters are despicable in their actions–there’s a reason why I yelled “oh shit” at my screen. But to tell you why would be a big, flashing spoiler.
Morley has created a bleak world where young women have their agency removed from them and innocence and promiscuity are condemned by both peers or teachers. At the heart of the film (and it’s there, if faint) is the friendship between two girls and how destructive it can be.
The Falling is out now on a limited release and on VOD.