Being a Mom is never easy, or so I must imagine, but I must also imagine that it’s probably easier for some people. The heroine of I Don’t Know How She Does It had a high-paying job, nannies and a massive family support system, for example. That was how she did it. The mother in The Babadook has no such luxuries, and even before the supernatural monster strikes, one gets the impression that all the day-to-day responsibilities of raising her child are driving this poor woman to madness.
Essie Davis plays Amelia as a raggedy bundle of nerves. Her son’s birthday is coming up. It is also the anniversary of her husband’s death. Her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is a precocious little hellion who brings homemade weapons to school and has very few friends, all of them fair-weather at best. Amelia knows she has to side with her son, take care of his needs, and take him out of school when his teachers prove they don’t give a damn. She also knows that it’s going to be a challenge for which she is simply ill-equipped.
To make matters worse, her son’s choice of bedtime reading is Mr. Babadook, a scary pop-up book about a boogeyman with long, sharp fingers and a top hat Dr. Caligari would envy. Now Samuel can’t sleep at night, and neither can Amelia. The shadows of their house are teeming with a monster that may be real, or may be Amelia herself, her mind gradually ripping at the seams. She is projecting her exasperation and rage onto a child who doesn’t know how to process his mother’s transformation without the iconography of a morbid fairy tale.
First-time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent wrote and directed The Babadook, and she seems uncannily aware that the true terror at the heart of her tale is its grim reality. The unpopular notion that not all women are naturally equipped for motherhood is a scary prospect for families to ponder, and the disturbingly realistic performance from Essie Davis as a mom out of her depth makes The Babadook one of the most chilling horror stories of the past few years, all by its lonesome. She has our sympathy, and also our fear.
But The Babadook is a supernatural yarn too, on one level or another, and Kent finds unsettling ways to convey the familiar feeling of lying in bed at night, under the covers, nervously suspecting that something is in the room with you. She films The Babadook with uncomfortable close angles that imply that something shocking is just off-camera, and with ominous negative spaces in her wide shots that give off practically the same effect. Mr. Babadook is lurking everywhere, inside and out, and his impact is very real whether he is a fantasy creation or something else entirely.
And although Kent oversells The Babadook’s climax, with a little too much child-in-peril cliché to keep her film’s ugly realism completely intact, the majority of her movie is truly terrifying. Grounded in the most unpleasant anxieties of actual child-rearing, inflated with a larger-than-life sense of Grimm’s Fairy Tale dread, The Babadook is the most distinctly scary movie of the year. It will very likely send you running into your mother’s arms, hoping against hope that she likes you as much as she claims she does. But that’s hardly a guarantee, is it?