With Lost Child, Ramaa Mosley has made an American fable for our times.
Lost Child, directed and co-written by Ramaa Mosley, opens on a young Army veteran, Fern (Leven Rambin), riding a bus through an increasingly isolated rural American landscape. The long tracking shots of forest-lined dirt roads recall Kubrick’s The Shining and mark the beginning of the manipulation of our assumptions. We’re in for some horror, the type just hasn’t been established yet.
Fern’s khaki fatigues represent an escape. People serve their country for all kinds of reasons, and she signed up to break out of poverty and life in a small, dying town in the Ozarks. With her tour ended, she has returned home to deal with the loose ends of her father’s death and find her brother, a local hoodlum she is hoping to save. The past has drawn her home, but she intends to make the visit brief.
She’s escorted to her father’s ramshackle house by a neighbor, Florine (Toni Chritton Johnson), a source of local gossip and backwoods superstition. There, Fern navigates childhood and wartime PTSD. Few settings feel as vulnerable in film as an isolated house in the woods and memories of combat and the nocturnal meandering of Fig (Kip Duane Collins), a local pyromaniac looking to cleanse old homes and trees of demons and ghosts, make for sleepless nights. There is always that dreaded feeling that something is watching from the tree line.
A car wasn’t part of her inheritance, so Fern walks everywhere. A daylight stroll through the woods is interrupted by a boy named Cecil (Landon Edwards) who asks her for help. Dressed in an undershirt, pants and carrying a knife, Cecil is reticent about his parents and his home. Fern takes him in with the intent to turn him over to the proper authorities. Cecil is not her problem but her health begins to deteriorate after he arrives. Florine drives her and Cecil to a local, country doctor who asks about the boy in private. After hearing about the Cecil’s strange appearance the doctor warns Fern. This is not a child, but a tatterdemalion, a demon of the woods who assumes an innocent form to suck the life out of the kind people who take it in. The doctor’s prescription: Take the monster deep into the woods and abandon it.
Fern is not the superstitious type, but Cecil’s behavior and people’s reaction to him begin to support the premise that he is what the doctor, Florine and Fig say he is. Then there is Mike (Jim Parrack), former one-night-stand-cum-social worker who, patriarchal voice that he is, thinks Fern should hold onto the boy because he sees a connection between them. Everything is set in motion for a big conclusion where Mike has to tear victory away from the demon child while Fern lies close to lifelessness on her dilapidated porch. Thankfully, Lost Child is a smarter movie than that, and Fern is a character with her own agency.
While playing with the conventions of supernatural horror, Mosley uses her settings to interrogate some real horrors of modern American existence. Everywhere Fern goes she walks through squalor. Shanty encampments and opioid addicts populate the town and there is the sense that the revelers at the local bar are one medical emergency away from losing their lower middle-class lifestyle. The only government services are prison and Mike’s beat with foster care. Superstition has replaced education even with people who should know better.
Aesthetically, Mosely seemed to rely on memories of Sling Blade, particularly with her young lead, Landon Edwards. In terms of costume and manner, he recalls Lucas Black’s Frank Wheatley, but he’s not the only lead with pleasurable antecedents. As Mike, Jim Parrack embodies the same bearish grace as Vincent D’Onofrio in his younger days, and Leven Rambin both physically resembles Julia Roberts and carries the movie with the same magnetism Roberts had before mega stardom limited her range of possibilities. They are the type of actors you hope for bigger things even while the movie business shrinks around them.
Forests are claustrophobic places thick with shadows and untraceable sounds when shrouded in darkness. The imagination easily runs in such circumstances, turning shadowed stumps into predators. We are at a time in our country when people find it is easier to believe in conspiracies and monsters than the real horrors we’ve made of our reality. With Lost Child, Ramaa Mosley has made an American fable for our times. She is subtle with her messaging, but what she has to say is clear.