"The Lost Children" review: A Lynchian mystery that stirs childhood nightmares

“The Lost Children” review: A Lynchian mystery that stirs childhood nightmares

In the opening scene of Michèle Jacob’s first feature film, a father takes a sleeping little girl to bed and tucks her tenderly under the covers. It’s only when she wakes up that her nightmare begins.

The girl wakes up in an old house near the woods, but her father has mysteriously disappeared, apparently leaving her and her three brothers to fend for themselves. For the rest of THE Lost children (The lost children), world-premiering at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the boys experience the kind of bizarre and inexplicable phenomena that could only be the product of young imaginations. Or am I?

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Lost children

The bottom line

It will revive your childhood nightmares.

Place: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Proxima Competition)
Launch: Iris Mirzabekiantz, Liocha Mirzabekiantz, Louis Litt Magis, Lohen Van Houstte
Director-writer: Michael Jacob

1 hour and 23 minutes

At first, children are not particularly alarmed by their circumstances. They do the kinds of things kids do, like playing truth or dare and helping themselves to a bottle of booze. “I like the smell,” comments one after taking a sip. “Sometimes, Dad smelled like this when he came to kiss us goodnight,” another points out, in a kind of seemingly throwaway line that clearly has ramifications.

Not that the Belgian filmmaker, who also wrote the screenplay, is interested in providing easy answers. For much of its running time, The lost children it has the brooding vibe of a slow-burn horror movie. The children spot an ominous house on the other side of the woods. One of them peels off the faded wallpaper to reveal a keyhole and finds an eye peering through her. Another sees a fleeting image of an adult touching the back of her neck and later discovers she has a nasty bruise there.

Things that go bump in the night are eventually shown more explicitly, including animal-like eyes that glow in the dark and the loud growl of some kind of creature. “Monsters don’t exist” becomes the mantra of the younger children, but it is clear that they don’t really believe what they are singing.

Their terror soon becomes more pronounced. “The forest doesn’t want us to leave and the house is haunted,” one of them announces. The older girl, 10-year-old Audrey (Iris Mirzabekiantz, who demonstrates a huge screen presence) attempts to explore the woods, only to encounter a mysterious tunnel that leads to a window where she sees several people in a room dealing with an apparently unconscious woman. To add even more to the David Lynch vibe of the film, everyone is wearing electrodes on their heads.

This is, as you may have gathered by now, an elliptical mystery film, with relevant information only sparingly doled out. Eventually it becomes apparent that the children’s mother was gone, one way or another, and that the father never wanted to go home. “He made Him sad,” one of them points out.

For viewers more comfortable with clearer narratives, the puzzling process can prove frustrating. But the writer-director orchestrates the proceedings with such visual finesse and tonal control that they remain compelling, and the concise running time prevents impatience from taking over. There are also fun touches throughout, like when kids work up the courage to venture into the woods and equip themselves with homemade weapons by attaching cooking utensils to sticks. And there’s a visual flourish near the conclusion that’s stunning in its simplicity.

The quartet of child actors – Iris and Liocha Mirzabekiantz, Louis Litt Magis and Lohen Van Houstte – cope beautifully with their challenging paces, their highly expressive faces conveying the dread of things that more realistic boogeyman scenarios may entail.