As the film Darlin’ opens, a filthy, feral teenage girl (Lauryn Canny), identified as Darlin’ by the bracelet on her wrist, walks out of the woods accompanied by a Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh, who also directs), on her way to a hospital. Growling and frightened, she snarls at the doctors and nurses until she’s finally subdued. Her story becomes clear: Darlin’ has spent most of her life in the woods with the Woman, living with a small colony of equally feral children. Only Tony (Cooper Andrews), a nurse, attempts to communicate on her level. But soon Darlin’ captures the interest of the local bishop (Bryan Batt), who runs a girls’ school currently under threat of being shut down. He sees Darlin’ as salvation: publicly educate this barely civilized child, and save the school. To which end, he brings in his former acolyte Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone) to help educate Darlin’ for her first communion. But the Woman still lurks nearby, keeping an eye on her former charge, and she, like everyone, has ulterior motives.
Darlin’ is a sequel to the 2011 film The Woman, although it stands perfectly well on its own. The film veers into satire almost immediately – the Church wants to “civilize” the feral girl but also capitalize on her animalism, as the Bishop attempts to antagonize her for the cameras. Nuns pontificate on the nature of Adam and Eve to a girl who hardly understands them and only wants to tear off her clothes and leap out a window. As Darlin’ slowly becomes indoctrinated to the Church and the scriptures, her questions and confusions lend to a development of her own story and the uncovering of religious hypocrisy.
The feminism of the film stems from the dominance of women on the screen – Darlin’s classmates, Sister Jennifer, the nuns at the school, the homeless women with whom the Woman finds a new community, all begin to form a barely suppressed phalanx against the patriarchal constructs of the Church and hospital. The film turns on how women are brought to heel under patriarchal control, the attempts by male civilization to control and dictate the female body, and how continued suppression of feral femininity can result in the literal eruption of the chaos world.
There’s a devious simplicity to the story that might backfire on it. Darlin’ permits itself flights into nearly surreal violence and even humor, accompanying more sober dissections of church-centered patriarchy, female friendships, and Darlin’s confusion regarding her own exploitation and her place within society and outside of it. While Darlin’ occasionally goes off on tangents, especially in dealing with the Woman and her reasons for releasing Darlin’ back into society and for stalking the girl at the same time, it’s still a tight, intelligent, weirdly humorous thriller that arcs well to a conclusion that, though it might be expected, is nonetheless deeply satisfying.
While the hypocritical nature of religion is hardly a new topic, Darlin’ approaches it from a nuanced and feminist perspective, with Darlin’ and the Woman as examples of feral femininity that must be brought under control, and the other female characters existing along a spectrum of female comradery that chafe under that control. McIntosh has absorbed the “feral child” trope and used it to depict not just the sickness of society but the complexity of human nature, both within society and outside of it. Darlin’ works, in large part, because of an inherently feminine, critical perspective that combines violence and motherhood, physical and verbal language, and the depiction of a girl torn with different forms of abuse and a totally untenable choice between two extremes. There’s great satisfaction and hope in Darlin’, but it comes in forms you might not expect.
Darlin’ showed at Fantasia 2019 and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.