RELIC movie poster | ©2020 IFC Films

RELIC movie poster | ©2020 IFC Films

Rating: Not Rated
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
Writers: Natalie Erika James and Christian White
Director: Natalie Erika James
Distributor: IFC Films
Release Date: July 10, 2020

RELIC is a horror movie that deals with senile dementia. For a lot of people, this will be a form of gilding the lily. Dealing with a parent’s real-life cognitive decline is often so devastating that it’s hard to muster much added alarm about the possibility of a supernatural dimension to it. Director Natalie Erika James and her co-writer Christian White elicit some pathos, but in trying to mix tragedy with scares on this topic, they wind up somewhat diluting both.

Essentially a three-hander, RELIC revolves around Kay (Emily Mortimer), her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), and Kay’s mother Edna (Robin Nevin). As the film starts, career-driven Kay and Sam are bickering over Kay’s desire for Sam to return to university, or at least do something other than tend bar. This dispute unfolds as both of them arrive at the spacious rural home of Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) to seek the elderly woman, who seems to have wandered off. Edna eventually returns, and seems healthy and stable enough, though she says she can’t remember where she was or what happened.

There’s one seeming logic glitch that may be a cultural issue. RELIC is set and made near Melbourne, Australia. When a medical professional makes a house call to examine Edna, it’s a less than thorough check-up. This may be protocol in Australia (this reviewer admits no knowledge one way or the other), but it seems odd in dealing with an elderly person who disappears and reappears with no explanation. The omission means that the other characters don’t get a significant piece of information that’s revealed to the audience.

Sometimes Edna is thoroughly lucid and loving, sometimes she is confused, and sometimes she has bursts of dangerous rage. Sam finds little notes that Edna appears to have left for herself all over the house. One intriguing, ominous one reads, “Don’t follow it.”

RELIC movie poster | ©2020 IFC Films

RELIC movie poster | ©2020 IFC Films

Kay and Sam both struggle with the all-too-real dilemma of what’s the best thing for Edna that they can live with. Should Sam move in with Edna? Should Edna move in with Kay? should Edna be put in a nursing facility? Viewers mull over exactly what’s going on with Edna, what “it” may be, and how it’s all connected to the decay steadily taking over the house.

As a director, James is adroit at eerie compositions, as well as some strong visual juxtapositions. There’s an effective edit when mold in a closet becomes headlights on a road. She’s also got some very strong performers, with Mortimer heartbreaking in Kay’s conflict, and Nevin by turns humorous, tender, and terrifying. Heathcote has conviction as the caring Sam.

But because RELIC wants to be coy about what’s going on, we want up getting lost in its puzzle. We are distracted from the lifelike aspects of the story by trying to put its puzzle pieces together, and frustrated that these don’t add up to either a solid metaphor or even intriguing mythology. By the end, RELIC feels a little too much like an unsatisfactory visit with a mentally diminished person – there are flashes of good, but we come away feeling more worn down than edified.

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