Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film

The Seeding — Barnaby Clay [Tribeca ’23 Review]

June 16, 2023

It’s always a pleasure to find genuinely weird horror movies at a film festival, the kind too offbeat or otherwise too uncommercial to garner attention from the mainstream but (hopefully) destined to be viewed by an impressionable viewer at just the right age as to be irrevocably altered in some way. The Seeding isn’t as unique as, say, Skinamarink, or as impressively insular as last year’s The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra. But it manages quite a high-wire act for much of its runtime, and if its ultimate resolution feels a bit over-determined and familiar, there are still ample chills to be found.

Like a distaff reimagining of Woman in the Dunes, The Seeding begins with images of a filthy toddler wandering a barren wasteland while nibbling on a severed human finger. A series of abstracted landscape shots give way to a hiker traversing the same terrain in search of the perfect spot to photograph a solar eclipse. The man (Scott Haze)  comes across a young boy crying about his missing parents; determined to help him, the man follows the boy deep into the desert before realizing that the boy has run away from him and that he is now hopelessly lost. Shivering from the cold and without water, the man stumbles upon what appears to be an oasis — a large pit surrounded by high, sheer cliffs that houses a small shack. Descending down to the bottom of the pit via a strategically placed rope ladder, he meets the shack’s sole inhabitant, a thirty-something woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) who offers him food, water, and a bed. The man is skeptical, hoping only to find a working phone or directions back to his car, but hunger and fatigue get the better of him. He drifts off to sleep, only to find in the morning that the rope ladder is gone, rescinded up the side of the cliff and leaving him with no egress.

The man (named Stone in the film’s end credits, although he never tells anyone that during the movie proper) is naturally confused and terrified in equal measure; he tries desperately to escape, screaming for help and searching for the missing ladder, and when all else fails he attempts to scale the rocks barehanded. The woman (Alina, although she too is never named throughout the film’s course) goes about her business, warning Stone to be careful but otherwise busting herself in the tiny kitchen while he flails about outside. To make matters more difficult, a group of feral young boys (including the one who initially lured Stone towards the pit) occasionally appear at the top of the cliffs to tease, taunt, and otherwise terrorize Stone. Alina seems content with ignoring them, brushing off their antics as simple “boys will be boys” behavior. What follows is a bizarre sort-of love story, as Stone and Alina get to know each other and he gradually comes to accept his seemingly permanent imprisonment. The boys lower supplies into the pit now and then, while the man learns to garden with his ample free time.

Writer/director Barnaby Clay takes his time laying out this narrative framework; working with cinematographer Robert Leitzell, Clay emphasizes the rugged terrain and coarse, dry textures of rocks and sand. It’s a tactile film, the frequent use of overhead bird’s eye views suggesting just how small these people are in the grander scheme of things. The film seems to take place over the course of roughly a year, but time becomes elusive in the pit. Stone never quite gives up hope trying to escape, even attempting to befriend one of the boys (a decision that leads to tragedy). Stone and Alina are obviously coded as a kind of Adam and Eve, their partnering a return to a “pure” form of domesticity. But things are not so simple; the boys become increasingly aggressive, and for all her outwardly demure behavior, Alina clearly knows more about the situation than she is letting on. Sheil is a remarkable performer, her opaque body language and seemingly inscrutable visage put to such good use in films like She Dies Tomorrow and Kate Plays Christine. Here, these qualities mask something much darker, and when she’s finally allowed to let loose it is genuinely unnerving. It’s a shame that The Seeding eventually turns into just another folk horror riff, precipitated by an act of cruel violence that alters the tenuous balance that the couple has maintained, but it is so well made that viewers might not mind. The film might suffer from some familiar tropes, but they’re wrapped up in an extremely appealing package.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 24

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