Given all girls have to contend with — including bullying, the struggle for perfection and being othered — on a daily basis, horror has always seemed like the most interesting genre to explore some of the agonies that come with female adolescence. But often when coming-of-age stories pop up in this heightened space, the protagonist feasts off human flesh (“Raw”), transforms into a rabid state (“Ginger Snaps”) or is terrorized by a malevolent version of her mother who now has buttons for eyes (“Coraline”).
And those kinds of narratives are all wonderfully textured and fascinating to watch. But less frequent in horror are the stories in which the young protagonist navigates fears about the preteen and teen female existence in more humanly identifiable ways. This year’s Sundance Film Festival entries “Piggy,” “Master,” and “Hatching” do just that, which makes them particularly special to watch. Their horror comes from a very familiar place for girls: isolation.
Take writer-director Mariama Diallo’s “Master,” for example. The ominous film, amplified by jump scares and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s haunting score, will spark conversations because it centralizes the increasingly maddening ordeals of Regina Hall’s Gail Bishop as the first Black Master of a residence hall at a mostly white college.
But “Master” is at its most formidable as it captures the complex realities of a Black freshman student on that same homogenous campus. Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) desperately tries to fit in with her white peers, until she is swallowed whole by the school’s horrifying secrets. When she enters college, she is rocking her natural hair and being as accommodating as she can with her white roommates, whose takeout delivery bills she fronts when they’re too self-involved to notice.
Diallo deftly shows the achingly recognizable choices Black girls make just to survive in this space, along with the accompanying nightmares that become all too real for Jasmine and further ostracize her. Guided by her anxieties, she straightens her hair, kisses a white guy at a party, and dismisses the sage counsel of Gail and the only other Black face on campus (Amber Gray) to avoid being boxed in because of her race. “I’m from the suburbs,” she says defiantly.
“Master” highlights the kind of paralyzing exclusion and despair that is unique to Black and brown girls like Jasmine who may already be struggling with their identity while dealing with micro- and macro-aggressions. So, the creepiness Diallo weaves throughout the film naturally coalesces with the dread that already exists in the Black teen experience.
The horror works in many of the same ways in writer-director Carlota Pereda’s “Piggy,” which centers on a high school girl in Spain named Sara (Laura Galán) who is consistently made fun of because she’s fat. Like Jasmine, she is shunned by her peers. So, Sara’s days are usually routine: wake up, throw on her headphones to tune out the snickers around her, help out her father (Julián Valcárcel) at his butcher shop, go for a swim at an empty local pool, and go home.
Frustratingly, audiences have been trained to expect something awful to happen to fat girls on-screen (Netflix’s “Insatiable” comes to mind), so you feel an almost immediate terror for Sara. And Pereda delivers on that in a monstrous scene where the bikini-clad teen is alone in the pool as her peers, including a former friend (Irene Ferreiro), come by and begin harassing her. After trying to drown Sara with a cleaning net, they run off with her clothes and towel, leaving her to tearfully walk down the road by herself and vulnerable to savage boys on bikes.
But that’s not the height of the horror that hangs over “Piggy.” Sara sees the same girls beaten and bloodied in a truck driven by a man who saw what happened at the pool. He gives Sara a towel to cover herself before speeding off with the screaming girls, and she is faced with an unfathomable decision: Should she try to rescue the girls or leave them with the man to do whatever he will?
This would be a horrifying choice for anyone to make, much less a child. It’s one that either way compromises her sense of self, morality, and safety. This isn’t a girl who’s trying to be a badass or a hero. She just wants to be left alone, which is a common feeling for so many girls who have no allies and are pestered due to their appearance, interests or some other thing considered outside a preconceived norm. Like in any great coming-of-age film, what Sara decides next irrevocably changes who she is.
The same is true for 12-year-old Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) in Finnish director Hanna Bergholm’s “Hatching,” which focuses on a nuclear family heavily curated by matriarch and social media influencer who is only identified as Mother (Sophia Heikkilä). Tinja’s entire young life has revolved around Mother’s ideals, especially her frantic struggle to become a star gymnast whose efforts are mostly met with scorn.
But with her life mostly playing out with fake smiles and Mother-orchestrated scenes for Instagram, Tinja has no space to express her innermost concerns that stem from having to fit an impossible standard. She has no friends or peers with whom she can be herself, whoever that even is.
As a character, she’s an enigma, which makes Ilja Rautsi’s screenplay a bit abstruse at times. But Tinja’s extreme desolation and the daily manipulation of her identity creates a lingering sense of apprehension that resonates all too well in the social media age when all we know about ourselves or others is dictated through 240 characters and a photo on-screen. Multiply that dread by 10 when it comes to impressionable young girls.
Though that’s more than enough to rattle audiences, Bergholm utilizes genre techniques to further draw out the inherent horror in “Hatching.” When an egg Tinja discovers outside hatches, she chooses to keep the atrocious creature hidden in her bedroom. She soon finds with it a sense of companionship because she can indulge in the many facets of her identity she’s been unable to confront openly, including the unseemly parts like her potential bulimia.
Even at its most visually heinous, “Hatching” is a grounded portrayal of the duality of girlhood at an age when it’s yet to be defined. But like most entries in this genre, Tinja learns the hard way that her actions, no matter if they are driven by despondence, can have grave consequences.
It’s no wonder that “Hatching,” “Master” and “Piggy” are all helmed by female filmmakers. They’re empathetic, unflinching and truthful about the intricacies and brutality of female adolescence. While they subvert some of the more blunt elements of mainstream horror, none of the films compromise on what it’s like to be terrified, alone and a girl.