Like a batch of movies from young filmmakers I’ve recently watched, Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones is more impressive for the potential it shows than the final product.
But we can still have fun with it.
Quick Plot: Teen dream Brent is driving down the road with his good-natured dad when a bloodied naked man appears on the road. Brent swerves, hits a tree, and an ominous 6 months later title card takes us half a year and one dead parent later to the present.
Now a bit of a self-mutilating stoner, Brent gets through his days with his cute girlfriend and goofy best pal, the latter of whom is excited to take a goth girl out to the big school dance. As the day winds down, a mousy brunette named (the not mousy at all name) Lola Stone timidly asks Brent to be her date for the evening. Although he declines rather gently for a boy of his age, Brent still incurs the wrath of a very effective little outcast.
While climbing a nearby mountain with his trusty dingo, Brent is violently abducted. His loyal dog crawls home bleeding profusely and terrifying Brent’s already crazed mom and worried girlfriend. Meanwhile, Brent awakens in the home of a clearly insane Lola, her enabling father, and mysterious catatonic mother figure (named Bright Eyes) planning Lola’s very personal, very disturbing home prom.
Written and directed by first-timer Sean Byrne, The Loved Ones is an energetically fresh little slice of genre fun. Played full-force by Robin McLeavy, Lola is a unique villainess of whom we’ve never really seen before, sort of a Carrie White raised by an eager-to-please redneck with a long viewing history of rewatching The People Under the Stairs. Between her hole-in-the-head mother, potentially incestuous relationship with dad, and collection of tossed aside cannibalistic suitors, Lola is something special.
And yet, it’s all of these fascinating things about her character that ultimately makes Lola as fresh as she is frustrating. We don’t get any real backstory about her family, which would be fine if we weren’t already led to believe she was a longtime school wallflower…which means where did she keep getting her dozen past ‘dates?’ How many young men can disappear from one school district before someone notices? At just 86 minutes long, there was plenty more time to flesh out some of the more nagging questions.
That being said, The Loved Ones is also quite punk rock and perhaps that style in itself justifies the quick running time and unanswered questions. We don’t know why Lola’s father would aide her in these violent schemes, just like we don’t know what his wife did to incur a home lobotomy. Maybe that’s fine: by not filling in some of the blanks, Byrne leaves us wanting to know more about the monsters we barely met.
Other supporting characters, like Brent’s pal’s dark-natured date, are entertaining on their own before subtle hints reveal their true importance in the overarching narrative. When you combine that kind of approach with, say, Brent’s opening accident (which served the story a bit but more importantly, gave his character a very specific place to start) you start to see how Byrne’s approach to a good ol’ fashioned torture film is actually incredibly new.
I think I’m talking myself into liking The Loved Ones a lot more than I did while watching it. This is not to say it’s not a fun film—from a scratchy catfight to tree climb, The Loved Ones is busting with genuine laughs and scares—but some of its plotting issues did affect my enjoyment during the running time. That being said, I had a good time with the characters (heroes AND villains), felt sad at some deaths, chuckled inappropriately at well-staged black humor, and even enjoyed the deliberate soundtrack choices. It’s a prom date done right.
Though I would have preferred a little more delving into the psychosis of Lola, the rest of the teenage characters are surprisingly likable in a funny and three dimensional kind of way that should be far more common to this genre
The more I think about Lola’s character, the more The Loved Ones starts to unravel
Razorblade necklaces may seem like an accident waiting to happen, but they can also come in handy when your evening involves abduction
In a pinch, the bodies of a few rotting cannibals will make for a smelly, but suitable ladder
When the principal tells you not to get down and dirty inside a school gymnasium, the parameters generally extend to all of school property
The Loved Ones picked up a strong following from film festival showings a few years back, and though it doesn’t necessarily meet its hype, it’s a good and most importantly, NEW little genre film made by a fresh young presence. Byrne’s script and style are clearly his own, and the mix of horror and comedy is something rarely handled so well in a debut. I don’t know that I’ll revisit this particular film anytime soon, but I’ll certainly be on the watch for whatever he does next.