There’s much to like about Paris Zarcilla’s debut feature-length film, Raging Grace, a sorta-kinda horror movie that flirts with very familiar territory before eventually switching gears and becoming something altogether weirder and more interesting. Zarcilla (himself British-born to Filipino parents) clearly understands the casual racism that non-white people face in their day-to-day lives, and we we here follow Joy (Max Eigenmann) and her daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) as they flit from housecleaning job to housecleaning job. Joy is an undocumented Filipino, and is trying desperately to save enough money to get black market identification from a shady dealer. Joy is a precocious troublemaker, playing pranks on her harried mother and otherwise being a nuisance. The demeaning nature of these various jobs is articulated clearly, and the film’s first act is essentially a laundry list of micro-aggressions that Joy must simply grin and bear while also raising a child.
When the cleaning agency sends Joy to the home of Katherine (Leanne Best), it seems obvious from the start that she shouldn’t take the job. The estate is a mess, and Katherine is haughty and pretentious; upon their introduction, Katherine corrects Joy on where to put the emphasis on her name. But she also offers to pay Joy in cash, under the table, so she won’t have to kick any money back to the agency. Joy is desperate, so of course she agrees, and it’s then that we meet Master Garrett (David Hayman). An elderly aristocratic type, he’s wasting away in a coma while terminal cancer runs its course. Joy’s job is to clean the palatial estate, cook, and care for Master Garrett. Complicating matters is the fact that Joy is hiding the existence of Grace from Katherine, literally sneaking the child in via suitcase and having her hide in closets throughout the day. Grace resents this for obvious reasons, and her sneaking around throughout the house offers some measure of suspense, but also plenty of cheap jump scares and belabored dream sequences. But anything horror-related here is simply window dressing, a mere patina of spookiness to goose the audience. It’s hard to talk about the rest of the film without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that not all is as it seems with Katherine and Master Garrett, and once Joy discovers that the medication Katherine force-feeds Garrett is causing the coma — not the cancer — she springs into action. Unfortunately, that action summons forth an even older, more malevolent form of racism. The long legacy of colonialism becomes the specter haunting this house, a metaphor made literal by a strange discovery in the basement. Thankfully, Zarcilla mostly abandons the horror affectations in favor of much more engaging mystery plotting, as Joy must figure out who to trust while unraveling the familial backstabbing that led to such a bizarre situation in the first place.
There have been a number of recent films about the horrors of immigration and domestic labor butting up against white privilege and deeply ingrained societal prejudice. Sembene’s 1966 masterpiece Black Girl seems to be the ur-text here, and you can trace its influence to the present, with otherwise disparate films like Nocebo, Nanny, His House, & No One Gets Out Alive all releasing in recent years, all of them ghost stories to one degree or another. It’s certainly a net-positive that once silenced voices can now tell their stories, while taking to task the entrenched powers that facilitate such abuses of power in the first place. How valuable that is as actual social change remains to be seen.
DIRECTOR: Paris Zarcilla; CAST: Max Eigenmann, Jaeden Paige Boadilla, Leanne Best, David Hayman; DISTRIBUTOR: Brainstorm Media/Doppelganger Releasing; IN THEATER: December 1; STREAMING: December 8; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 39 min.