Capturing the complexity of abuse is tough to accomplish when mainstream audiences clamor for black and white delineations between predator and prey. Some go the horror route for metaphorical terror focusing on the pursuer while others go dramatic for the helplessness of a victim unable to break free. Writer/directors (and photographers) Carlos Sanchez and Jason Sanchez chose to throw out convention, using their feature debut as a vehicle to explain how easy boxes don’t exist for the devastation wrought by abusive relationships built on love. Way too often the abused becomes abuser, leading to a continuous chain of violence and psychological torment spanning generations. Allure seeks to get to the heart of how these tortured souls must impossibly reconcile love, hate, jealousy, and rage at once.
At the center is Laura Drake (Evan Rachel Wood), a woman who finds it difficult to separate romance and sex where it concerns her cravings to be satisfied. It’s obvious she’s been burnt before and more so that she has been the catalyst of bad situations born from overzealous attachment issues clouding her judgment of reality. The film opens with an unknown man entering her home, blindfolding himself, and finding her in the bedroom. Laura is using him to quell her urges because these circumstances can ensure she doesn’t create a bond that risks going places darker than this ordeal already is. It’s a tough scene made tougher by the “normal” day that follows. We see her struggle to stay afloat and begin to understand why it’s so very hard.
Much of this context is displayed with body language above dialogue, the trio of lead performances by Wood, Julia Sarah Stone, and Denis O’Hare going above and beyond as far as embodying three broken characters trying to find balance. The latter plays Laura’s Dad/boss William, a seemingly kind and empathetic man who worries about his daughter and the lifestyle choices she has made with drugs/booze/sex. But there’s a history between them that moves past what those titles are allowed to presume. He is quick to take his hands off her shoulders when she stiffens and quicker to stop himself from finishing the last word of the phrase “I love you.” Williams has lost the permission to be a father and we do assume the worst.
A similar psychological if not overtly physical dynamic is had between one of Laura’s house cleaning customers Nancy (Maxim Roy) and her sixteen-year old daughter Eva (Stone). The animosity is palpable, the show of control inexcusable. It’s as though Eva is in prison, forced to play classical music on the piano and to endure her mother’s disappointment when a lack of joy causes her public performances to be wanting. On top of the pressure of school and music, however, is the impending marriage between Nancy and her boyfriend—an inevitability made more secure by the decision to sell their house and move in with him. It’s alluded that Nancy is prone to loving jerks, something Eva knows will mean they’ll have to find another home again shortly after.
It’s therefore no surprise a friendship blossoms between Laura and Eva. Laura sees herself in Eva’s pain as well as a kind and loving soul with the potential of accepting her and the baggage that comes along. So a proposition is struck. If Eva really wants to escape the clutches of her mother, she can come live at Laura’s. But what at first appears to be compassion is soon revealed as more. Eva doesn’t tell her mom what’s happening and the police are of course called to pursue a missing persons case. Being that she’s underage, the discovery that Laura is harboring her (along with what we can guess are previous offenses) would construe kidnapping. A locked door later and Stockholm syndrome begins. But which has it worse?
The Sanchez brothers aren’t interested in force-feeding us that Laura is in the wrong. Yes they make sure we know Eva must escape, but they also make it hard for us not to pity Laura in the process. This young woman has had a rough life (the details of which are gradually exposed) and thus every moment of contrition and mortification following heinous actions consciously done to Eva are authentic. Laura’s self-punishment and tears aren’t a show to coax Eva closer. They serve that role regardless, but not via ill intent. This is why we believe the teenager’s love for her and the impossible decision leaving truly is. When things are okay they are wonderful. And when they’re bad both women question their role in turning them sour.
We see so many shifts whether from parents devastated by what they’ve done or children too caught up in what those experiences wrought to realize their full effect. Roy doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but the quick glimpse we get after Eva leaves is so heartbreaking when compared by the vehemence spewed just before she left. O’Hare becomes an emotional scene-stealer in his own right as his desire to be a father is constantly undermined by the past. And when he finally feels it’s necessary to confront that nightmarish history, the pain expressed by both him and Laura proves unbearable. This is what happens when horrible truths are repressed—when victims are left to feel responsible without the therapy necessary to unpack the resulting destruction.
The coupling of Eva and Laura inevitably becomes a mirror. Eva seeks to run from a domineering woman but falls for one that’s worse. Laura covets the pure love her father ruined yet poisons it the same way he did theirs. We’re shown damning cycles feeding on each other that prove worse when their hypocrisy and irony is acknowledged. And both Wood and Stone will make you scream and cry depending on what they allow or ignite. Just like Laura couldn’t leave her father (his financial support a stand-in for love), Eva struggles to abandon the one woman who ever listened to her desires. Allure shows prison as a concept beyond the physical realm and exposes how those without locks are the ones we can’t escape.
Allure premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens on March 16.