Review: ‘Raw’ uses blood and guts to create an unnerving portrait of adolescence

Julia Ducournau has crafted a violent, sexually provocative thriller made with impressive technical grace with ‘Raw.’

Coming-of-age films are rarely surprising. While classics like “The Breakfast Club” and more recent successes like “The Edge of Seventeen” demonstrate the genre’s potential, it’s rare to find a film under that umbrella that’s truly unpredictable. Finding ways to mix up the formula is a task only the most unique and exciting directors can accomplish.

Enter “Raw,” a French-Belgian horror flick that doubles as a meditation on adolescence. Director Julia Ducournau has crafted a violent, sexually provocative thriller made with impressive technical grace. The film made waves at the Cannes Film Festival last year for sending squeamish audience members to the door. But make no mistake, “Raw” has plenty on its mind regarding addiction, youth and what it means to grow up.

The film’s story is unique enough to keep an audience guessing. The plot follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a young girl from a family of strict vegetarians who arrives at veterinary school to start college. Her roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) and Adrien’s sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) greet her, along with a gossiping, hazing student body. When the upperclassmen force Justine to eat a raw rabbit kidney, she begins to crave flesh at an alarming rate. As her hunger becomes more insatiable, she contends with romantic feelings, drug experimentation and increasingly extreme parties.

“Raw” has more in common with shock-horror films like “Saw” than one might expect from the film’s setting and characters, and Ducournau manages to sell the violence via an eye-popping visual palette. “Raw” may be the work of a novice filmmaker (this is Ducournau’s feature-length debut as both writer and director), but she displays remarkable technical chops and artistry behind the camera. The imagery from Belgian cinematographer Ruben Impensi is grounded and gorgeous, while editor Jean-Christophe Bouzy stitches it all together with a capable eye.

Despite the film’s aesthetic beauty, the strongest moments come from its performances. Justine’s journey from innocent student to meat-craving delinquent would mean nothing without a fine performance, and Marillier delivers. The actress, whose icy stare recalls that of “Neon Demon” star Elle Fanning, sells the transformation beautifully. She embodies Justine’s wide-eyed shock, fear and eventual understanding with creepy abandon. Rumpf and Oufella also shine, completing a triplet of fine performances.

But the commitment and skill from the film’s actors cannot mask the thinness of their characters. “Raw’s” story works best as an allegory for addiction and youth, and its symbolism is both obvious and admirable. But that commitment to Big Ideas makes the characters within the story feel “created” rather than organic. Justine, Adrien and Alex speak and act as though they are academic chess pieces, not real people.

“Raw’s” concept and execution are original, but while the film has plenty of thematic material, almost all of it feels heavy-handed. Ducournau directs scenes for maximum thematic importance, often at the expense of nuance. The result is a film that looks and feels important to a fault. There are plenty of genuinely frightening moments, but the film looks and sounds more concerned with proving its worth as a ‘capital-F’ Film than entertaining its audience.

That said, “Raw” is both unique and scary enough to make up for its minor flaws. Its graphic violence and inconsistent tone may prove unwieldy for some, but the performances and Ducournau’s skill as a relatively new director make it an unpredictable and frightening experience.

For more thoughts on film and culture, follow Dana on Twitter: @AlstonDalston.

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