A brother and sister — he 11, she 8 — hole up in an abandoned house for the winter in David Lowery’s starkly enigmatic feature “St. Nick.” Lowery focuses not on the children’s innocence or fragility but on their fierce determination to rely on no one but themselves, as if they had already taken full measure of the adult world and rejected it. Virtually dialogue-free, the film opts for an almost perverse minimalism; even the camera is limited to the topography within the kids’ purview. This abstract, unsentimental pic, probably a hard sell for non-fest auds, opens April 22 at Brooklyn’s ReRun Gastropub.
From Rene Clement’s “Forbidden Games” to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows,” pic’s subject matter recalls a host of noteworthy precedents, chief among them Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter.” But where the kids in that film are pursued by a specific malevolent figure, the strongly felt menace in “St. Nick” is more generalized, as evinced by the quasi-lethal booby-traps the boy (Tucker Sears) sets up wherever they rest. The nature through which they pass, though possessing its own magnetism, never aspires to the poetic mysticism of “Hunter.”
The children generally steer clear of civilization except for brief raids on dumpsters and convenience stores, but occasionally they venture further into the outside world. An outdoor birthday party featuring shrieking children massacring a pinata is captured in bits and pieces by a subjective camera as the girl (Savanna Sears) warily approaches. She calmly ignores a suspicious woman’s questions until finishing her cake, then simply walks off. The song of a folk singer (Mara Lee Miller) lures the boy, who stops and listens, with the singer’s tacit approval. Generally, however, grown-ups react with hostility, as the kids are evicted, ignored or chased by a series of men during their odyssey.
Real-life siblings Tucker and Savanna Sears deliver concentrated, totally unself-conscious perfs. Intensely absorbed in the moment, they effortlessly draw viewers into their closed-off universe.
Helmer Lowery and cinematographer Clay Liford have devised a complex visual aesthetic, sometimes catching the children’s movements in the abandoned house from locked camera positions, sometimes panning to map the surrounding terrain, or else simply advancing with handheld immediacy into the unknown. Unfortunately, the HD image quality isn’t up to the ambition of the lensing (a problem admittedly compounded by the non-Blu-ray projection at the press screening attended). Equally intricate but more technically successful, Jeff Halbert’s sound design deploys strategic silences to startling effect.