TIFF ‘19: ‘Pelican Blood’ Is A Disturbing Examination of What a Mother Will Do For Her Child

What would you do for your newly-adopted daughter? Give her the best education possible? Address her behavioral problems head-on? Take lactation medication to breastfeed her so she feels closer to you? Yes, all this happens and more in Katrin Gebbe’s film, Pelican Blood, a disturbing look at the depths a mother will go to prove her love for her (adopted) child.

Wiebke (Nina Hoss) is a horse trainer who, in the film, is focused on getting horses ready to be a part of the police force. She and her daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo) live a peaceful and idyllic life surrounded by animals. But the family dynamic shifts when Wiebke decides to adopt another daughter, a five-year-old girl from Bulgaria named Raya (Katerina Lipovska). While everything seems great at first, Raya slowly reveals her violent and aggressive side, symptoms of an attachment disorder that makes her dangerous. She tries to set the house on fire, threatens to kill Wiebke and Nicolina, and bullies all of her classmates relentlessly. Wiebke must figure out a solution to keep her other daughter and herself safe.

Throughout the film’s two-hour runtime, horrible events after horrible events happen to this small family. It is a stressful viewing experience as you take on Wiebke’s frustration with each of Raya’s tantrums. You yourself feel her exhaustion. But at the same time, it’s difficult to understand why she keeps enduring such abuse from a five-year-old. She so desperately wants this little girl to feel loved and not broken, which is an admirable pursuit, but it comes to a point when her determination becomes obsession. She and Raya form an unhealthy bond that is built on codependency and turbulent emotions. 

Hoss and Lipovska’s performances as mother and adopted daughter are the core of the film’s emotional impact. Hoss is perfect as the smiling, optimistic mother who slowly begins to lose her cool. Her stoic confidence seen at the film’s beginning seeps out of her, rendering her into something small and defeated. On the other end is Lipovska, a young actor who nails the high-pitched screech and frustration of a pissed off child. She is downright animalistic, creating a terrifying creature with blonde hair and an adorable toothless grin.

The emotional performances are paired with muted visuals of a landscape covered in dull grays and browns, a quiet and moody place that beautifully sets the tone. Even before Raya enters the family, Wiebke’s farm is atmospheric, quiet, and stern; it is not bursting with life or color, but rather a regimented place where love is scheduled after training time. While the camera remains steady for most of Pelican Blood, it becomes erratic in several key moments to match the chaos of Wiebke’s inner thoughts. These moments are brief and uncommon, making them stand out even more among a more controlled film.

For most of Pelican Blood, the viewer operates under the assumption that Raya is suffering from a mental illness and needs medical support to develop healthy coping mechanisms. However, this notion begins to shift as Raya speaks about an imaginary friend who makes her do things. From here, the film slips into the realm of the supernatural, an unexpected and perhaps unnecessary addition that elongates the film.

Pelican Blood is a disturbing tale that starts out like The Good Son and morphs into something deeper and stranger. It delves into the psyche of a woman who refuses to give up and what happens when that refusal morphs into obsession. Gebbe has created a gorgeous addition to the “mothers of horror/thrillers” subgenre in a film that wants to remain realistic but dips its toe into the supernatural. 

You may check out the rest of our TIFF ’19 coverage here.

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