by Emily Reuben
One of the most exciting parts of Heartland Film Festival is being able to see worldwide premieres of films before they are distributed. One of the shining examples of these films is Tatterdemalion from director, producer and co-writer Ramaa Mosley. Mosley’s film offers an interesting and psychologically engaging addition to the Heartland film lineup this year.
Returning to the Ozarks after her service in the army, Fern (Leven Rambin) yearns to reconnect with her younger brother. However, upon her return home, Fern realizes that the Ozarks hold many dark secrets that ultimately distract her from her mission. Among them is a mysterious child (Landon Edwards) whom she discovers abandoned in the woods. The child, who begrudgingly reveals his name is Cecil, forms an instant connection with Fern and temporarily takes refuge in her home. Almost immediately after Cecil enters Fern’s life she begins feeling ill and experiencing a string of inconveniences. Fern’s problems begin to further escalate once the local doctor concludes that Cecil is actually a Tatterdemalion, a creature from Ozark folklore causing Fern’s illness. The veteran becomes concerned for her own life and starts to suspect that the child is actually the strange creature. With the Ozark resident’s ideas of reality and superstition at odds with one another, it is up to Fern to uncover the truth behind Cecil’s origin and determine who, or what, he is.
It’s no secret that female directors are not at all prominent in the industry. Out of 213 independent films showing at Heartland, only 75 are directed by women, and that is still a much higher ratio than is seen in the mainstream. In the world of filmmaking, it is always a happy surprise to see a female filmmaker amidst the male-dominated medium, and an even happier one when the execution is done well.
One of the directing choices that really made the film shine was the choice to film everything on location in the Ozarks. As a result, the feel of the community, homes, and local ideologies really hit home. People live in decrepit homes, or don’t have a home at all. There are woods everywhere with few people scattered around. There is nothing glorious-looking or expensive to be seen. By all accounts, when Fern returns to her rural home she becomes isolated and vulnerable. Had the location not perfectly captured this feeling of isolation, the effect of Cecil being with Fern would not have been nearly as meaningful. Cecil may have been alone in the woods, but Fern is also alone within her community.
Tatterdemalion does a superb job showcasing the connection between Fern and Cecil. Their interactions, both good and bad, are truly the heart of the film while the mystery is more the icing on the cake. Initially, Fern is understandably reluctant to care for Cecil, and this causes some tension and distrust between the two. Levin Rambin does an excellent job portraying a woman who wants to help a lost, lonely child, yet feels put-upon by his presence. When she begins to fear Cecil may be a Tatterdemalion, she manages to maintain empathy while simultaneously relaying a cautious, sometimes aggressively protective, attitude. The relatability of this rocky relationship is easy to latch onto, especially during scenes where Fern and Cecil begin to truly bond.
It should be noted that Landon Edwards has never acted previously, which is almost unbelievable considering how effective he is onscreen. There are a few instances of awkward acting here and there, but I would honestly attribute these to the script rather than Landon. Anyone would be hard-pressed to find a child who could make the line “I want to stay with you forever” sound natural when randomly uttered splashing around in the water. While Cecil’s dialogue can be a bit unnatural at times, this is a minor nitpick. It can even be argued that the dialogue choice is purposeful to further bring into question if he is a child or not. Still, for me, this was a bit distracting.
What this film does really well is blur the line between reality and fiction to touch on the dangers of superstition and how it can cloud judgement and dampen sympathy. The tale of the Tatterdemalion causes Fern to question whether or not her caring for Cecil will cause her harm. The theme here is very interesting and can almost serve as a commentary on religion or mysticism. A firm belief in something can cause blind fear, and blind fear can result in tragedy. This is a relevant, important observation that makes this film absolutely worth watching.
In many films with similar ideas, the clues to the correct answer are often far from subtle and the person in question can easily be determined to be good or evil. While I figured out the correct answer pretty early on, the question perseveres for Fern through most of the film, thus maintaining the interesting dynamic between Cecil and Fern and leaving audience members who do know the answer with something to still latch onto. Again, the mystery is secondary to their relationship, so being able to determine the correct answer is not necessarily a fault.
The majority of this film looks great, but some editing choices are hard to justify. Though a minor detail, the blue filters at night did take me out of the film at some points with the unnatural lighting tones. There was also an instance towards the end of the film where the scene suddenly changed from night to day with no indication of time passage, which was a bit jarring. However, these are largely insignificant when contrasted to the numerous successes showcased throughout the film and did not impact my overall enjoyment of the film.
In Tatterdemalion, the positives far outweigh any negatives. With strong acting, good directing, and great visual aesthetic, this film is well worth a watch when it comes to theaters near you.
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'Tatterdemalion' offers an in-depth look at the negative effects of superstition while also developing a strong relationship between the two main characters. Additionally, the question of if Cecil is a threat will leave audiences on the edge of their seats pining for the answer.