The Polygon team is reporting in from the all-virtual grounds of the 2022 Sundance International Film Festival, with a look at the next wave of upcoming independent releases in sci-fi, horror, and documentary film.

The opening act of the Finnish horror film Hatching may give Black Mirror fans traumatic flashbacks. The striking episode Nosedive sears an aesthetic of pink-and-pastel perfection into viewers’ brains as the face of Instagram influencer respectability. Then it builds up a sense of dread around that kind of artificiality, and a distrust of the hidden labor and equally hidden motives involved in creating it. Hatching starts in a similar place, with a blissfully perfect family of four curating their lives around carefully composed, strategically framed social-media posts. But the film gets much darker than Black Mirror, goes much faster, and reaches much bloodier ends.

Hatching is yet another vicious satire of online culture in an age that’s increasingly finding traction with them. The 1980s were full of horror movies built around the wholesome Norman Rockwell image of suburban life, and the seamy underbelly it sometimes disguises. But that brand of horror has mostly morphed into movies like Cam, Spree, and The Hater, warning about what’s under the surface of a social-media identity, and what happens when people use the internet to chase approval at any cost. Hatching couches that familiar warning in a metaphor so simple and obvious that it almost seems ridiculous. But the extremity of what director Hanna Bergholm puts onscreen strongly counterbalances any sense that the message is too facile.

Twelve-year-old Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) seems to have been raised as an accessory to her mother’s video blog, Lovely Everyday Life. Tinja, her younger brother Matias (Oiva Ollila), and their parents — credited solely as Mother (Sophia Heikkilä) and Father (Jani Volanen) — calculate their every move around their online audience. The mother frequently posts videos about her perfect family and their perfect home, and she’s enlisted the whole family in upholding the exact illusion she wants to project.

Ilja Rautsi’s script strips that idea down to its bare essentials by never addressing who the mother’s audience is, or what she wants from them. She could just as well be performing for a vast, profitable audience, trying to build a following in an influencer sphere that barely notices her, or just obsessing over her own fantasy of an ideal life. Bergholm keeps the blog off the screen, and its readership and their response are left to the audience’s imagination. The abstraction is part of the film’s horror, and part of its insight: The followers rule the mother’s life, and through her, they rule Tinja. But they’re a faceless, shapeless entity to Tinja, so they’re invisible to the audience as well.

Tinja worships her mother and would do anything to please her, but shortly after an unsettling event lets her see her mother’s ruthlessness, Tinja brings an egg home from the forest and hides it in her room. As the mother’s behavior becomes increasingly controlling and oppressive, the egg grows to enormous size, then hatches a monstrosity that’s clearly meant to reflect everything Tinja could be that her mother would disapprove of. Where she’s slim and graceful, it’s lumpy and misshapen. Where she’s obedient and tractable, it’s erratic and raging. Where she’s primped and pretty, it’s slimy and oozing, and so forth.

As Tinja tries to hide the creature, nicknamed “Alli” after a creepy Finnish cradle song, the metaphor gets clearer and clearer: Alli represents the ugly parts of Tinja that she fears and hides, but she consciously nurtures and feeds it as well. As it becomes more and more terrible, she keeps protecting it. She’s afraid of it breaking her control, exposing her deception, and drawing her mother’s wrath. But at the same time, it fulfills her darkest impulses, acting on her jealousies and resentments.

The patness of that symbolism frequently feels too blatant and on-the-nose, particularly when Alli leads Tinja into problems clearly coded as teen-girl issues. (Alli needs its food chewed and regurgitated, which makes Tinja behave like a bulimic, binging and purging. Alli leaves blood on Tinja’s sheets, making it look as if Tinja has started menstruating, to her father’s acute embarrassment.) And playing out those themes leads the story into to some repetition as Tinja and Alli clash, reconcile, and clash again.

The stakes get higher each time, but the pacing sometimes drags as the story cycles around Tinja’s distress and the mother’s escalating behavior. Hatching follows a familiar path for horror stories where people face their dark doppelgängers, and see what they might have been, or what they’re afraid of becoming. That leads to a lot of the action feeling foreordained, and even at an efficient 86 minutes long, the film sometimes feels a little overstretched.

But Alli is a mesmerizing presence that gives the film a cultish shivery center. Bergholm tells Polygon that she literally Googled the world’s best specialist in movie animatronics, then reached out to him about working on the film. That bold choice paid off: Her animatronics supervisor, Gustav Hoegen, came directly to this film from running practical creature-effects teams for Lucasfilm, on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Solo, The Last Jedi, Rogue One, and The Force Awakens. Her SFX makeup head, Conor O’Sullivan, comes with a similar pedigree, as half of the Oscar-nominated effects duo who gave Heath Ledger his grotesque leer as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Together, they and their teams make Alli hideously visceral, with the familiar weight and conviction of a practical effect instead of a CG effect. And Solalinna’s performance with the puppet is convincing and distressing. Together, they carry the movie past its weaker points to a memorable ending.

In a press packet for the film, Bergholm says she wanted to make Hatching “especially for audiences who are traditionally afraid to watch horror films, but want to see powerful stories about female emotions.” That description is understandable: Hatching does feel like a dark fairy tale instead of a standard slasher, and its messaging is particularly and specifically built around the trials of girlhood, the expectations women face, and how directly the two relate to each other.

But Bergholm’s summary still undersells how deeply creepy Hatching is. Timid viewers who are normally averse to horror aren’t going to find much comfort or safety in this movie. But for longtime horror buffs, this feels like something fresh: a simple story, told in the rawest and most startling way, and given a face out of nightmares.

Where to watch: Hatching will be in theaters and on demand on April 29.

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