In this character-driven, low-budget Australian indie movie, desperately insecure high school student Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy) plucks up the courage to ask hunky but emotionally troubled Brent (Xavier Samuel) to be her date at the prom.
Still reeling from the death of his father in a car crash six months earlier – and ridden with guilt that he was driving at the time – Brent finds solace in pot, heavy metal and self-harm. Despite his insularity and tendency to disappear into the outback, his devoted girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) does her best to help him reconnect with life.
For all his inability to communicate, Brent is loyal enough to Holly to sensitively turn down Lola’s offer. Meanwhile Brent’s best mate Jamie (Richard Wilson) pines for goth bad girl Mia (Jessica McNamee), little realizing that her don’t-give-a-shit exterior masks her own unspoken heartache.
Okay, assuming you’d not heard of (or possibly seen) ‘The Loved Ones’ before, and taking into account (a) the title, (b) the above synopsis, (c) its Antipodean indie status and (d) the presence of Kasey Chambers’ lachrymose ballad “Not Pretty Enough” on the soundtrack, you’d easily be forgiven for thinking that you were in for an hour and a half of angst-addled adolescents sitting around feeling sorry for themselves, with perhaps a big emotional meltdown in the second act and a feel-bad finale just to make sure it goes over well at Sundance.
Kudos, then, to writer/director Sean Byrne that what he delivers instead is the sickest, funniest, most original horror movie not made by a European director in ages. Imagine a rom-com absurdist torture porn movie: ‘Hostel’ made by Nora Ephron, or ‘When Harry Met Sally’ directed by Eli Roth. Imagine, if you will, ‘When Lola [insert psychotic act here] Brent’. Imagine if Leatherface had a daughter who was obsessed with pink and totally divorced from reality and who decided one day that Brent would be just the strapping young lad to make her life complete … and imagine if Daddy dearest (John Brumpton) took it upon himself to make it all come true for his precious princess.
Welcome, dear readers, to the pastel coloured and extremely violent world of ‘The Loved Ones’, where the screams are agonized but the music is cutesy, where the blood runs red but the prom dress is pink.
Although Byrne might not seem to do anything particularly new on a purely narrative level – although the way he links the Brent/Lola and Jamie/Mia strands is neatly done – the advances he makes with the genre are numerous. Firstly, it doesn’t look as grubby, grainy, murky and moribund as most films of this ilk. In fact, the cinematography is pretty damn gorgeous in places. Secondly, there’s wit aplenty to alleviate the darker moments (oh, how welcome would some tombstone humour have been in the ‘Saw’ franchise or any of the Platinum Dunes remakes?) Thirdly, Byrne actually gives a shit about his characters, and presents us with teenage protagonists who are more than just grungy ciphers. Even the obligatory sex scenes are handled with aplomb, one sensitively directed, the other played for laughs but realistic in its awkwardness.
And best of all, ‘The Loved Ones’ isn’t the usual male psycho/terrorized woman routine (a la ‘Hostel 2’, ‘Captivity’, ‘P2’, ‘Eden Lake’ etc etc). Here we have the frankly wonderful McLeavy giving one of the best balls-to-the-wall performances in ages as the demented Lola. In fact, my only real complaint about the film is that the DVD cover has Samuel’s name above the title and no mention of McLeavy. Sort it, Optimum Releasing – Robin McLeavy has “next big thing” written all over her and ‘The Loved Ones’ is her show from start to finish.