For most of us, adolescence is tough. Flooded with emotions and hormones, we struggle to make our way in an unfamiliar and hostile world where we’re beset by bullies, pressures of school and family, and, above all, our own awkwardness. We realize that the dream of childhood was indeed an illusion and that we’ve been tossed out on a violent ocean — and maybe we are the most violent things in it.
Imagine feeling all of this and having superpowers, and you’ll get at the core of Brightburn, the new film from director David Yarovesky (The Hive) and producer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy). We’re used to superhero origin stories, where future caped fighters for good typically stumble upon their extraordinary abilities while being model children, where even a tragic childhood, like Batman’s, can’t force true heroes to the dark side.
That’s not the case for young Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn, Avengers: Endgame), who discovers his superhuman abilities just before his 12th birthday. At first, he’s worried, interested in his powers, but exploring them cautiously and — much like teenagers everywhere — privately. But things escalate quickly, aided by a mysterious spaceship hidden on his parents’ property and the strange, Lovecraftian language it teaches him. Not even Brandon’s loving adoptive parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman, NBC’s “The Office”), can coax him back into being the sweet, adoring son they once knew.
The film’s best moments are in its portrayals of the central family. Brandon’s lies to his parents get easier as his horrific acts escalate, and even though they know he’s lying, what teenager doesn’t tell a few fibs now and then? The camera shows us Brandon’s shifting eyes, his briefest of pauses over what he’s been up to, and, at first, we get it. Individuation is part of growing up, and kids don’t stay innocent forever.
But Brandon quickly becomes unsympathetic, racking up violent kills the way some kids, I’m told, collect Pokémon. I have to applaud the F/X team here for the convincing brutality of the death scenes, though I do hope Brandon will eventually upgrade to a better costume. The red sock, anteater-snout look doesn’t quite work. And while he slips into sociopathy convincingly (a strength of Dunn’s acting), it would have been more interesting if the change was more nuanced. But that’s not how supervillains roll, is it?
In response, his parents are appropriately concerned. Tori channels her childhood fears of abandonment into an unconditional acceptance of Brandon while Kyle tries father-son bonding techniques like camping trips and a stilted, though charming, “birds and bees” talk to get through to his estranged kid. And although dad is eventually ready to throw in the towel, mom’s persistent belief that Brandon was a gift from heaven slowly becomes heartbreaking and crushing. The fact that the characters are believable throughout makes the events unfolding compelling rather than clichéd.
Enhancing the overall mood is the setting and its mirroring of this central family’s disintegration. The Breyers live in a dilapidated farmhouse — the kind of place that seems as if it started falling apart before the foundation was laid. They are beset by packs of wolves that take their chickens, but steadfastly cling to their faith in God and family even as the rest of the universe looks increasingly amoral. Most of the important scenes happen in the dark, intensifying the helpless ignorance of the Breyers and, perhaps, foreshadowing what’s in store for humanity. Importantly, the only light in these nighttime scenes comes from the buried spacecraft, which glows a reddish-gold under the farm. As with any good horror movie, what’s been hidden doesn’t always stay that way.
There are overt nods here to school shootings, those tragedies in which future generations are taken by future generations. At moments I was reminded of the gut-wrenching We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), in which a mother has to face the hideous violence her child has wrought. But while that movie was about the horror of everyday existence in our modern era, Brightburn uses its main characters’ superpowers to take a step back, zooming out into cosmic horror in which humanity faces the possibility of its own visceral, bloody extinction.
I would have liked a little more detail about where exactly Brandon came from (a rare time when additional explanation could have filled in the story in interesting ways), but I get the feeling I know where he’s headed. I suspect a sequel might let us in on the plan.