The beautiful overgrown dystopian paradise of a post-apocalyptic event sets director Carlo Lavagna’s second feature's bleak, unforgiving, and folkloric tone. Shadows is an emotionally gripping and devastating psychological thriller written by Damiano Bruè, Fabio Mollo, Vanessa Picciarelli, and Tiziana Triana with an all-female cast. The character-driven story derives its suspense and tension from the frightening relationship dynamics at play, aided by an ominous and otherworldly string-heavy score by Michele Braga.
Shadows follows Alma (Mia Threapleton) and Alex (Lola Petticrew), two teenage sisters living deep in the woods with their Mother (Saskia Reeves), a strict, abusive, and over-protective woman who has sheltered them from the Shadows, creatures that live in the daylight beyond the river that borders the abandoned Starlight Hotel, a place that nature has reclaimed. As they grow up, allowed outside only during the night, the girls develop a curiosity and anxiety about the outside world. Alex seeks to break the rules, while Alma, cautious and afraid, hopes to avoid Mother’s wrath and stay safe in the darkness. As Alex pushes Alma further outside her comfort zone and Mother’s boundaries, the balance of their lives begins to shift, revealing a disturbing secret.
While Lavagna keeps audiences on the edge of unease, the film’s uneven pacing creates a frequent dragging sensation, but we remain invested in the characters and the narrative’s thrilling unpredictability. Shadows is a slow but visually distressing burn, and the film’s performances are what drive the experience. Threapleton delivers an emotionally raw and vulnerable performance with her portrayal of Alma — perfectly conveying her feelings of isolation, fear, curiosity, and experience coming-of-age in a suffocating world. She’s an emerging talent that audiences will yearn for more of. Petticrew is equally compelling as the fearless, adventurous, and playful younger sibling, representing a side of Alma she’s locked away since childhood to protect herself from Mother’s mood swings.
The film is beautifully nuanced but bound to be underappreciated for its lack of traditional anxiety-inducing thrills. Its unease builds within dark claustrophobic spaces, specifically for Alma, whose prone to panic attacks as the walls of her “comfort world” and relationship with Alex begin to crumble. James Mather’s cinematography, Shadows is visually distressing at nearly every turn. We often view the world through Alma’s eyes or focus tightly on her as she struggles to breathe and focus. That is where the dread is most prevalent. We form an instantaneous and deep connection with Alma in those moments because it's easy to resonate with her anxiety, exhaustion, and the strain on her mental state.
Lavagna succeeds at offering audiences the unexpected with a trope that has been used countless times in horror. While it isn’t particularly daring, and the film’s scares reside solely in the study of its characters, Shadows is a memorable journey of finding one’s strength and enduring the mental anguish of trauma. Damaged people can prevail in tragic circumstances and face the unknown, however painful, and Alma is an outstanding representation of this.