Sean Byrne's debut feature transcends mere torture porn in its deftly controlled mix of empathy, grotesquerie and sardonic humor.

A nice addition to the annals of twisted Ozzie horror, Sean Byrne’s debut feature, “The Loved Ones,” transcends mere torture porn — though there’s plenty for the squeamish to squirm over here — in its deftly controlled mix of empathy, grotesquerie and sardonic humor. Tale of a kidnapped high schooler in high extremis is probably too small and specialized for offshore theatrical interest but should win a fanbase through midnight fest slots and DVD release.

Young Brent (Xavier Samuel) masochistically exercises guilt over his father’s recent death by car crash (Brent was behind the wheel). His troubles are about to get a lot worse, however. He’s tonight’s “guest” at the country cabin inhabited by classmate Lola (Robin McLeavy), whose school dance invite he just politely declined. A monster of vindictive self-absorption (Kasey Chambers’ cloying why-me pop hit “Not Pretty Enough” is Lola’s anthem), she does not take rejection well; Daddy (John Brumpton) assists in tormenting her uncooperative crush objects. While the material sometimes looks a bit thin for feature length, the final reel’s fresh conceptual/staging outrages fully satisfy. Mostly unknown thesps and modest production values are very skillfully handled.

The Loved Ones

Australia

Production

A Screen Australia presentation, in association with Omnilab Media, Melbourne Intl. Film Festival Premiere Fund and Film Victoria, of an Ambiance Entertainment production. (International sales: Ambiance Entertainment, East Sydney.) Produced by Mark Lazarus, Michael Boughen. Executive producers, Christopher Mapp, Matthew Street, David Whealy, Bruce Menzies. Directed, written by Sean Byrne.

Crew

Camera (color), Simon Chapman; editor, Andy Canny; music, Ollie Olsen; production designer, Robert Webb. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 12, 2009. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Xavier Samuel, Robin McLeavy, John Brumpton, Richard Wilson, Victoria Thaine, Jessica McNamee.

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