Breanna Lucci says Orphan: First Kill is a welcome prequel, with a fantastic performance by Isabelle Fuhrman and a multi-dimensional introduction to Esther.
Her first family died in a house fire, right? Well, kind of. Orphan: First Kill is director William Brent Bell’s prequel to the 2009 hit directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Orphan. Orphan’s success lies in its core tropes: a terrifying child, a mother who knows something is wrong, but no one believes her, and an oblivious father who always seems three steps behind. While somewhat predictable, the film’s premise works because Isabelle Fuhrman, 11 years old at the time, leaped off the screen with her portrayal of an innocent child later revealed to be a ruthless and murderous monster. She was young, scary, and wonderfully complemented by Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of an unstable and suspicious mother. How could a prequel possibly do Orphan justice?
Orphan: First Kill certainly adds something to the narrative. When Leena (Fuhrman) escapes from her Estonian asylum, she finds the perfect route out of the country: pretending to be Esther Albright, the missing child of a wealthy American family. When “reunited,” Leena attempts to adapt to her role. However, things aren’t as they seem in the Albright household, and soon the film takes a similar route to its predecessor. Esther’s mother, Tricia (Julia Stiles), and brother, Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), are less than thrilled at her return, while her father, Allen (Rossif Sutherland), is elated. Something’s wrong with Esther, but like in the Orphan, Allen doesn’t seem to notice.
In returning to her childhood role as an adult, Fuhrman had a big task ahead. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter's Beatrice Verhoeven, Fuhrman noted that no adult has ever “reprised the role they played as a child.” Adult actors don't typically have the opportunity to play children again. While there are times in the film when Fuhrman looks more like an adult than a child, it works. Fuhrman’s performance rivals the original with her terrifyingly blank stare, ability to change facial expressions in a snap, and remarkable Estonian accent. When Esther is alone, she’s Leena, who adorns a hateful frown, jerky body motions, and dead eyes. When she’s Esther, her smile lights up the room, she speaks in a sing-songy voice, and her eyes radiate innocence. Fuhrman demands attention every time she’s on screen—it’s fun to watch and dissect.
Leena struggles to personify Esther. While the film's introduction and Orphan's version of Esther is a strong, confident antagonist, most of the Esther we see in Orphan: First Kill is timid and unsure. Leena's transition into the Albright family is bumpy at best, as shown when she mistakenly calls her child therapist's bird Sydney. It turns out pretending to be a child is a lot harder when you enter a family who thinks they know you. It's okay. Leena learns from her mistakes. The beauty in this story is that Leena's personal growth is almost tangible as we experience her ups and downs alongside her. It plants powerful seeds that easily bloom into the Esther we know and love. Combined with the wonderfully placed breadcrumbs that nudge the audience with references to Orphan and the wildly unexpected plot twist, writer David Coggeshall's screenplay perfectly complements the original story.
Karim Hussain leans into handheld panning shots with the cinematography. Often swirling through frames while moving between the actors and scenery with an eerie and swooping ease. Hussain relies on mirrors, morphed reflections, and close-ups of faces to give the sense that reality isn’t what it seems. Hussain perfectly captures the sensation that secrets are overwhelming in a story that roots itself in deception. Accompanying the photography is music by Brett Detar that flawlessly builds suspense. Betar uses resonant brass that echoes through backward, zooming-out shots of seemingly normal conversations, which helps craft unease even when nothing is happening. He also gives us the gift of Esther jamming to “Maniac” by Michael Sembello during the climax, which is truly delightful.
Orphan: First Kill is a welcome addition to the film series, and Fuhrman delivers a notable, unsettling, and captivating performance. Esther’s backstory steals the show with a thoroughly thought-out and intricate exploration of her inner struggles. Bell gives us a multi-dimensional and fascinating introduction to Esther.
Orphan: First Kill is now streaming on Paramount+.