Fern (Leven Rambin), a native of rural Missouri, left home 15 years ago to serve in the military. She pretty much cut her ties with her family and the town when she left, and is only returning home now, after the death of her father, in order to try to find out what has become of her brother Billy (Taylor John Smith). Fern hooks up immediately with the local bartender, Mike (a very charming Jim Parrack), who doubles as the town’s social worker, and goes about setting up her life, including rural necessities like acquiring a dog for protection.
One day she finds a ragged child (Landon Edwards) in the woods behind her home, staring intently at her. He reveals that his name is Cecil, but not much more about himself. She brings him into her house, feeds him, and fixes him a place to sleep (partly at the request of Mike, but also because the boy has aroused her maternal instinct). Major suspension of belief is required here, because in the modern world, so many things could go wrong with that plan (not the least of which are child abuse or accusations of child abuse). On the other hand, maybe West Plains is not so much a part of the modern world as we might think, but rather a place where traditional beliefs in the supernatural coexist with modern automobiles and farm machinery. This becomes evident when Fern starts to fall ill shortly after taking Cecil into her house, and some of the locals offer the explanation that Cecil is not a neglected child after all, but a Tatterdemalion, a vampire-like creature that will feed off her life and health until she dies.
Such stories exist in many cultures (I’m reminded of the the vorvolaka mentioned in Val Lewton’s 1945 film Isle of the Dead, for instance), and they can serve a variety of purposes. For one, they offer an explanation for things we don’t understand, such as why, even in the face of an epidemic, some people remain healthy while others all around them are dying. Another effect of these stories is to create a ready-made excuse to not help people you don’t know, or to whom you are not related, and to cast such a decision in terms of sensible self-protection rather than, say, xenophobia or miserliness.
The premise of Ramaa Mosley’s Lost Child (called Tatterdemalion in its initial release) is intriguing, and the cinematography by Darin Moran is stunning, capturing both the beauty and ugliness of Fern’s new environment (the beauty mostly coming from the natural surroundings, the ugliness from what people have done to it). There are many striking compositions in this film, and sometimes it succeeds in achieving the kind of subtle creepiness that the premise demands. However, the screenplay (by Mosley and Tim Macy) is poorly developed—you can hear the gears grinding as things happen because the script needs them to happen, rather than because they are plausible in any known human universe—and most of the characters are mere sketches. Worst of all, it’s seldom scary, and this is the kind of movie that really needs to deliver on the scares. Lost Child also suffers by the use of many locals who are not actors, and whose lack of skill takes you right out of the story. While good results can be achieved using nonprofessionals—The Battle of Algiers being Exhibit A for how to make this work, and Winter’s Bone Exhibit B—it’s not easy to pull off, and Lost Child fails more often than it succeeds in this regard.
I really tried to like Lost Child, given the Missouri connection and my interest in folklore, but ultimately I had to admit defeat. There are good things in it, but overall this film feels like an interesting idea for a short that was pumped up to feature length because that’s what the director wanted to do, rather than because it’s what the material demanded.| Sarah Boslaugh
Lost Child is distributed on VOD by Breaking Glass Pictures, with a street date of Sept. 18.