Breanna Lucci says The Ones You Didn’t Burn draws you in with its dynamic characters and story, refusing to spit you out until the credits roll.
[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS REFERENCES TO SUICIDE AND DRUG ABUSE]
Elise Finnerty’s feature-length film debut, The Ones You Didn’t Burn, world premiered at the Chattanooga Film Festival on Thursday night. Finnerty directs, writes, and acts in this modern coastal Massachusetts-based horror where two siblings uncover the dark truth of their long-owned family farm. The film stars Nathan Wallace, Jenna Sander, Estelle Girard Parks, and Samuel Dunning.
Siblings Nathan (Wallace), a recovering drug addict, and Mirra (Sander), a timid woman haunted by her brother’s addiction, return home to their expansive family farm after their father’s tragic and unexpected suicide. They meet the beautiful farm hands, sisters Alice (Finnerty) and Scarlett (Girard Parks), who are both mysterious and captivating. As they come to terms with their father’s death, unsettling truths about the land’s history and their family secrets surface to haunt them.
Finnerty showcases her immense writing talent with this script. Every line of dialogue serves a purpose. Whether to propel the plot or develop a character, Finnerty weaves an intense narrative about human struggles mixed with perplexing paranormality. The story’s subtle foreshadowing forces you to pay attention, giving just enough information to spend the rest of the film trying to piece together the breadcrumbs Finnerty leaves. Her execution is artful and kept me fully immersed in the story, eagerly awaiting each scene.
Wallace and Sander deliver stunning and deeply emotional performances. Wallace switches on a dime from careless to unraveling, welcoming the audience into Nathan’s mind. Sander is similarly impressive. Her ability to change from timid and calm to a haunted unfocused panic while drug-addled is remarkable. Both performances left me feeling a substantial range of emotions. After screening the film, I had to take a walk to comprehend the empathetic rollercoaster the experience was. The characters are dynamic. Mirra’s development is fascinating: while avoiding any outward discussion or displays, she explores her sexuality and juggles the complexities of grief, trauma, and familial mental illness.
Just like Wallace and Sander showcase their characters' troubled, intricate pasts through emotions and dialogue, the nature of Greg (Samuel Dunning) does much to propel Mirra and Nathan forward. He's seedy, selfish, and sexist. His downright disrespect of others made me gasp out loud. Yet he also represents where Nathan and Mirra come from, and he is the first to question if their father’s death was a suicide. While I loathe the character, this story needs him. Greg represents what Nathan is striving not to become, what Mirra continues to struggle with, and who the men in their family have been.
Brett Phillips makes a similarly notable debut as the film’s director of photography. Phillips’ cinematography tells a story all its own. The film begins with still shots filling the screen, providing a glimpse into the characters’ inner dilemmas: they feel stuck. As the story progresses, the images become increasingly frantic as Phillips switches to a handheld camera technique. Repeatedly, he uses the beach as a tool to describe Nathan’s thoughts. Phillips and the production team focus on traditional happy moments, like sitting by the water or going on a run, transforming them into creepy, ominous storytelling devices. Light and darkness are manipulated in the best ways, leaving the audience wanting to get as far from that beach as possible.
In her feature-length debut, Finnerty is brimming with untold talent and potential. The Ones You Didn’t Burn explores female sexuality, mental illness, and familial complexities. It draws you in with its dynamic characters and story, refusing to spit you out until the credits roll.
The Ones You Didn’t Burn world premiered at the Chattanooga Film Festival on June 23, 2022.