Overlook Film Festival 2019: Imaginary Friends Aren’t So Fun Anymore in ‘Z’

Imaginary friends are a common part of childhood. Kids use figments of their imagination to create their own fantastical realities, usually to cope with bullying, troubles at home, or just to escape somewhere new for a little while. But in Brandon Christensen’s newest film, Z, imaginary friends are something much more sinister and violent.

Eight-year-old Josh Parsons (Jett Klyne) has made a new friend. His name is Z, he loves 2% milk, and no one can see him except Josh. At first, his parents, Beth (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Kevin (Sean Rogerson), pay Z little mind; he’s just an imaginary friend that will disappear with time. That is, until Josh begins acting out in school. He becomes aggressive, yelling at and hitting his classmates. Z’s presence begins infiltrating their home and Beth begins to realize that Z may not just be in Josh’s head. As is horror tradition, the father thinks he is acting ridiculous and wants to brush off any strange behavior as part of growing up.

On top of parenting a distressed child and dealing with a potential monster, Beth is also coping with the recent death of her mother. While cleaning out her family home, childhood traumas begin to bubble up to the surface and reveal more dark truths about the origins of Z.  

Z boasts some of the effective scares of recent horror memory. It isn’t just about jump scares, but about building genuine dread. What lurks in the closet? What lies around the corner? No one knows, and Christensen milks that unknown for all its terrifying worth. The camera will linger just a second too long, making you cover your eyes in anticipation for a scare. These small choices work to build suspense, which grows and grows until it is viciously snapped in half.

Z himself, while shown only in brief glimpses, is absolutely horrifying. His human-like design with exaggerated features creates an uncanny Momo-like appearance that is burned into my corneas. He is a more simplistic creature, but that makes him all the more effective, especially when rendered as a massive charcoal drawing on Josh’s bedroom wall. Perhaps he is more terrifying as viewed only in quick glances, but there could have been more visuals and lore about Z himself.

Tracy’s performance as both concerned mother and terrorized victim makes the story all the more effective. She is not just characterized as a mother, but as someone who has her own traumas to grapple with. Think Hereditary but less cults and more monsters. While motherhood is a common subject tackled in the horror genre, Christensen looks at the topic with nuance, careful not to make a caricature out of Beth.

Christensen’s feature film debut, Still/Born, also tackled maternal fears with a sinister twist. His two films have taken the typical horror film plots around motherhood and imagined them to more terrifying ends. It is not just neurosis that drives these mothers to the brink, but something genuinely sinister that lurks in the shadows. Z could so easily be yet another horror film that paints a terrifying picture that only exists in the head of the protagonist. However, Christensen doesn’t rely on the typical mental illness plot to create a world of horrors. Rather, he pushes the boundaries into something even more harrowing, where imaginary friends are much more than just a childhood phase. Z is a downright scary monster movie that will make you reconsider turning off the lights.

Read more of our Overlook Film Festival coverage here.

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