By Frances Molina
“See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff.” Isaiah 41:15
I’ve always believed that films possess an ethereal quality. That even after the credits roll, after you’ve left the theater or closed your laptop, a film can stay with you. A certain breathlessness, an idea or an image you can’t shake, a sheen of something speckled on your grey matter. And out of all the films I’ve seen in my lifetime – a lot – there are two in particular that I have been unable to shake: Stoker (2013) and Sleeping Beauty (2011).
These films are, in some ways, obviously synonymous. Both feature young women as the lead protagonist. Both films are essentially horror films. They deal with radically dark and disturbing subject matter contrasted by palettes of lush, pleasing colors and scenes and settings of cool refinement and aesthetic affluence. Furthermore, each film places their leading ladies in mythologies that are historically familiar in film; Sleeping Beauty with prostitution and Stoker with the trope of an aristocratic family seething with destructive secrets and tensions. But what makes both of these films both exhilarating and unique, in my opinion, is that they also function as coming of age stories. The audience is invited to watch as these young women diverge from the expectations of the films’ mythos and in realizing the possibility of their own narrative, realize themselves and the power that entails.
I’ll begin with India Stoker, the dubious protagonist of Stoker. I say dubious because her character is almost unknowable, aside from her somber disposition and questionable morality. She is essentially closed. As Wentworth Miller, who wrote for the film, so eloquently puts it: “You can’t talk about the view with the shade pulled down”. Throughout much of the film, she is defined by her family’s narrative and her character is inferred through her personal and familial interactions. It is established from the beginning that India rebukes her emotionally unstable mother and their relationship is strained and uncomfortable. The only other connection she fosters is with her Uncle Charlie, another dubious character. Their relationship verges on obsessive infatuation as Uncle Charlie forces an intimate closeness with India by encouraging her to explore her darker, more insidious impulses; impulses that her recently deceased father recognized and tried hard to suppress and distract. Uncle Charlie would gladly share his murderous narrative with India and it is true that his narrative very nearly eclipses hers. During the climax of the film’s tension, it appears as if India will fall prey to Uncle Charlie’s menacing charm and her control and silent resistance will be completely lost. But then India pulls a fast one and quite literally blasts through her family’s narrative, forgoing her former passivity in order to assert a story of her own. This individual narrative, strengthened by her family’s narrative yet separate from it, succeeds a realization of self and a simultaneous recognition of power. The film opens and closes with the same peaceful sequence and India vocalizes her conclusion as the camera pans across India, standing statuesque in a pastoral landscape, amongst flowers dappled with blood, the wind picking up her skirt: “Only once you realize this do you become free, and to become adult is to become free”.
Then there is Lucy, the main character of Sleeping Beauty. Of the two female protagonists, Lucy is the more opaque. The audience doesn’t even know her last name. As such, Lucy is largely defined by the expectations of her struggle to survive and her resistance to the increasingly dangerous pull of the job she takes as a sex worker. This is by far the most disturbing aspect of the film. The job requires Lucy to drink a certain kind of tea which will render her unconscious. Then, very affluent clients pay to do whatever they want to her while she is asleep– penetration excluded. Lucy’s willingness to undergo this experience reflects largely on her passivity and her self-subjection to the role of prey. In truth, Lucy has only the illusion of control. Simply because she consciously choices to put herself to sleep doesn’t mean that it removes her from a place of vulnerability and the threat that comes with that very real loss of control. As she engages in the job more frequently, Lucy unwillingly begins to fall into another narrative: a narrative of non-existence which affects her on a subterranean level. She begins to question her existence and the audience watches as she strikes out with uncharacteristic desperation for attention, for recognition, for validation, her cool composure slowly starting to unravel. In the final moments of the film, Lucy, drugged but determined, drags herself out of bed before her client arrives to place a recording device in the corner of the room which she hopes will provide her with some kind of tangible evidence of her continued existence. But this is an unnecessary measure. Lucy wakes up before the session is completely over. Her screams of horror and surprise literally rip through the screen, suddenly shattering the film’s glacial, hypnotic tone. The film ends shortly thereafter and the audience is left wanting for some kind of resolution. There is none. However, Lucy’s question does not go unsatisfied. Her existence has been confirmed and in this recognition of self, she is granted the possibility of escape, the power to separate from the narrative that has begun to consume her life. We can’t guess at how Lucy will go on to define herself or what sort of personal narrative she will endeavor to construct. But the sleeping beauty is finally awake.
But what can an audience, specifically a young audience, take away from these films – besides uncomfortable feelings of horror, disgust, and confusion? I’ll admit the content isn’t for everyone and both films fail to achieve any semblance of inclusivity (the cast for each film is startlingly white and both protagonists are thin, traditionally beautiful, and seemingly bored with their ample wealth). But these films are powerful. For all their subtlety, there is an intensity within them that demands to be addressed. Although none of us (hopefully) have ever or will ever find ourselves in the dangerous circumstances that follow Lucy and India Stoker, each of us is tasked with coming into our own, apart from our families and away from what we have previously known, just like our two protagonists. It’s an experience characterized not simply by excitement and joy – but by fear, morbid curiosity, desperation and existential crises. Why shouldn’t every coming of age tale also be considered an outlandish horror story?
But even in the face of the incredible anxiety that surrounds growing up and coming into our own, it is important to consider how we define ourselves and what sort of personal narratives we are forging; to be cautious not to let ourselves be defined and contained by the narratives of others that might seek to eclipse or to overwhelm our own; and finally, to understand that even as we continue to face the question of who we are and who we have yet to become, it is never too late to begin again, new and sharp with many teeth.