Film Review: Brightburn (2019)

Director: David Yarovesky

Writers: Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn

Starring: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn

Synopsis: A few weeks after a married couple discover and “adopt” a baby boy who fell from the sky in a spacecraft, the boy starts exhibiting dark and disturbing behaviour.

“What is Superman decided to use his powers for evil?” is the tantalising elevator pitch for this film from director Yarovesky (The Hive) and writers Brian and Mark Gunn (both relatives of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, who also produces). And it’s an accurate, easy to sell description. The early scenes are certainly very reminiscent of previous Superman origin stories, with Kal-El landing on farmland belonging to nice, ordinary, hard-working farm folk.

But in Brightburn (named after the town in which the film is set, perhaps as a nod to the TV show Smallville), our villainous version of Superman (Brandon, played by Jackson A. Dunn) seems perfectly well-behaved and not at all evil until just before his birthday, when he starts hearing voices, apparently emanating from the spacecraft his parents have kept hidden away from him all these years. Brandon begins sleep-walking amongst other things, leading his parents to worry about him.

The sleep-walking is just the beginning…

The obvious metaphor for the film is puberty – going through bodily changes (which don’t usually involve being able to fly and punch things really hard) and psychological changes, trying to find your place in the world and learning more about yourself (again, not usually involving mutilation, murder and destruction of the world). This is made clear through the usual awkward talk about ‘the changes you’ll go through’ between Brandon and his father (played by David Denman, Roy from The Office). Brandon’s starting to have feelings towards girls, and – in some of the most disturbing scenes in the film – doesn’t know how to deal with them. We’ve all been there, just not perhaps with such bloody consequences.

The film can also be read from a grown-up’s perspective, seeing things from the side of Brandon’s mother (Elizabeth Banks, giving the role her all), and her refusal to let her boy grow up and become an adult. Several times she tells him that he’ll ‘always be my baby’, and she frequently treats him as though he is younger than he is. His bedroom has a peculiarly childish wallpaper, and at one point he wears pyjamas that match it. One of the first signs of danger is when Brandon gets mad at his birthday dinner because he’s brought out a dessert that’s ‘for kids’, and then his mother refuses to allow him to accept a present that is ‘too grown-up’ for him.

This combination of the physical and psychological changes of puberty, along with his mother’s suffocating way of keeping him her young child leads Brandon towards accepting his new path and new found way of life.

The film is dark, as expected from the pitch alone, but it is also surprisingly gory, including a couple of particularly wince-inducing moments. It’s disturbing, with little by humour to lighten things up, so the continual onslaught could be hard to take for some. But at the same time, it’s a great deal of fun for gore-hounds, with some inventive kills and some interesting ideas.

Though at times it feels like it’s repeating itself (the kid’s evil, we get it), there’s enough ingenuity and creativity on display to make it a more than worthwhile watch.

Extra credit for being the first film in a long time to give me a nightmare the same night that I watched it.

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