Travis Leamons // Film Critic
“Mom, you’re losing it.”
That’s what I would say when my mother misplaced her purse, appointment book – something important. Only I was too young and not ripe in the head to understand that my mother was slipping away from me.
An object lost, important dates worth remembering gone, a phone number unable to be recalled. Seeing someone you love become a prisoner in her own body is horrifying. No one should have to live that way. Dementia is cruel and unforgiving; it killed my mother years before she fell asleep that last time.
Natalie Erika James’ feature debut, RELIC, uses the horror genre as a platform to interpret this cognitive decline. The film, like the disease itself, starts very mild. In the opening prelude, water flows over a bathtub basin and gradually cascades downstairs as an older woman stands resigned, naked. It was then I knew that this was going to be tough to watch and was going to be difficult to separate my own history of seeing how dementia has affected me.
A year later, the woman, Edna (Robyn Nevin), mysteriously vanishes. During the disappearance, daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to her relatively remote country home, very concerned at what they might find. No trace of Edna or where she may have gone. The place is a mess, covered in dust, walls with black specks, closet cubbyholes of old knickknacks, and sticky notes to remember certain tasks.
When Edna emerges from the woods with just a few scrapes and a big bruise on her chest, she acts as if nothing happened. No big fuss worth sending out a search party, that’s for sure. She recognizes Kay and Sam and goes right back to a life of shuffling around the house and her hobby of carving designs into candles. Kay gets a little ferocious in trying to get an answer out of Mom and where she wandered off. Sam is just happy that Gran is back.
Just as dementia has its stages where mental deficiencies begin to accelerate as time goes on, RELIC moves at a similar clip. Scenes and episodes get more and more constraining. Edna becomes increasingly belligerent. Kay is finding it hard to cope with the idea of Mother going into assisted living after living alone without proper care for so long. Sam shows an eagerness to attend a school closer to Gran so she can take care of her. Edna won’t have it.
For the first two-thirds, it feels like we’re watching a haunted house movie wondering if, maybe, the “relic” is this old, decrepit house. Even before Edna’s arrival home, things were not as they seemed. Creaking floors is normal. Sounds coming from the walls are not. Then there are lurid dreams that lead to a harbinger of things to come. The old family home begins to show the fears of deterioration (remember those black specks on the wall?) and losing oneself.
RELIC is an unrelenting reminder that to keep family together, you must fight but also be willing to accept what is to come. Natalie Erika James astutely acknowledges that old age is no picnic. Here, it affects three generations in different ways, with a symbolic ending about transitioning.
Growing old is a perilous journey that saps our bodies and minds. Having been a bystander to my mother’s own sickness, there wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t wish I could slay the demon inflicting pain on her – and on me.
The demon may have won, but if I have learned anything from seeing what dementia does it is this: Mom never lost it. It was taken from her.
IFC Midnight will release RELIC on digital platforms on Friday. It is now playing at select drive-in movie theaters.