February Asks That You Sympathize With the Devil

By  · Published on September 26th, 2015


Read more of our Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage here.

Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is a lonely wallflower at a boarding school in the upper East Coast. She X-es the days on her paper calendar leading up to winter break and the arrival of her parents and the promise of time at back home. Bad news hits when she realizes that her parents are not going to be coming to get her like the rest of the students. Rose (Lucy Boynton), likewise a student at the school, will also be on her own during the break – but by choice as she has some unexpected personal news to work through. The Headmaster sees the coincidence as an opportunity for Rose to look after the younger Kat and remain at the school, alone with a pair of the elder women on staff for the duration of the winter break.

A few small towns away meanwhile, Joan (Emma Roberts) is attempting to hitch her way to the town where the boarding school resides. While sitting cold at a bus station, the obviously bothered and distant Joan is approached by a man traveling East with his wife. The man, unnamed to us, seeming of good intentions, is able to get Joan into the car and out of the cold, and on their way.

As the two stories unfold it starts to become clear that they’re interlinked, and the horrors that await everyone involved are gradually revealed.

There’s a moral quandary put forth by first-time filmmaker Osgood Perkins that’s difficult to get on board with – and that’s enough to derail the film despite some very good work by many in producing a moody, unnerving, and atmospheric horror thriller. The central theme of loneliness drives the motive of the crossing stories, and it isn’t until film’s end that the film’s problem arises. Without fear of spoiling, Kat is haunted by an evil presence at the school, and it’s during the winter break that the presence takes its possession of her. The events that follow at the school, and how the story unfolds with Joan is a stellar bit of storytelling and employs the structure of unveiling out of sequence. However, it’s about the only way the story works in order for the climax to be positioned where it is. And, it is indeed an intense buildup to a climax that will succeed in rattling many along the way.

However, in the final minutes a motive is revealed that, while not undoing the story, exposes what kind of a story we’re being told, and it’s a motive for the protagonist that’s inherently difficult to sympathize with. Great films have been able to get me to look past the person and see the problem. Fritz Lang’s M is probably the most famous example. There is a powerlessness to Peter Lorre’s child killer that makes you nearly weep for him. The only thing more powerful than his desire to stop killing is his urge to kill, and he is convincing in expressing his lack of say in the matter. This is not so with February. There is a longing for the opposite. Some truly awful things happen by film’s end, and all done without control – until they’re done again, but deliberately the second time, and the reason isn’t good enough for me. I’d hope it isn’t good enough for anyone.

It’s an unfortunate thing that it’s what I take away from the picture. Like I said, the film is nothing if not without some striking elements. Roberts, Boynton, and Shipka (who needs to age out of “disturbed Catholic school girl” sooner rather than later) do fine work, and Perkins’ work behind the camera has me convinced that he might one day have me sympathizing with one who has been overtaken by the devil – just not one who has the desire to be overtaken by the devil.

The Upside: Atmospheric horror that’s hard to come by, really hits it hard with the build up and climax, and great bit of story structuring

The Downside: Central motive unveiled by film’s end that completely breaks my ability to side with it

Read more of our Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage here.

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