Nursing aspirations to the seamless mix of likable teen drama and Carpenter-esque horror achieved by the superior chiller “It Follows,” French helmer Thierry Poiraud’s “Don’t Grow Up” is a well-meaning coming-of-ager that perpetually threatens more full-throttle entertainment than it finally manages. Flashes of acute genre instinct leaven this sporadically atmospheric hybrid, but its characters are too often bogged down in unpersuasive angst. In his first feature without a co-director, Poiraud demonstrates a genuine talent for realizing action and horror elements; if only his tale of kids versus grown-ups were prepared to fully exploit its promising adulthood-as-evil subtext. A modest VOD audience seems its likeliest commercial prospect.
Pic opens at dawn as May (Natifa Mai) awakes on her 18th birthday. Her boyfriend, Liam (McKell David), hassles her for sex; she’s less keen. So far, so familiar, but unlike the majority of contemporary onscreen adolescents, these lovebirds live in a foster home — the imposing St. Madeleine Youth Advice Care Centre in Northlands — along with a handful of other kids of a similar age. Why such a visibly sprawling establishment should be home to only half a dozen teenagers is left to the imagination. May’s friend Pearl (Madeleine Kelly) regards the older pair with a mixture of envy and diffidence, while harboring feelings for the home’s requisite sensitive brooder, Bastien (Fergus Riordan).
On this day, the teens swiftly discover, they’re alone in the home, with staff unexpectedly absent. The gang capitalize on this opportunity for unsupervised good times, not suspecting anything more sinister could be afoot. As this premise is set up, the occasional overly expository line lands with a thud: “What’s our carer, Anton, doing?” asks one character for the audience’s benefit.
Casual banter between the kids (which feels improvised, or at least workshopped) is more successful, and their callow disregard for the adults’ whereabouts initially plays well: It’s a reasonable response to a world that has treated them with indifference or even cruelty. Nevertheless, by the time the ensemble leave the care home behind and begin exploring the deserted town — all the while displaying only a modicum of anxiety — the credibility of their sangfroid starts to wear a little thin.
It’s this ill-fated recce that yields some of the pic’s standout scenes. The initial reveal that all adults are, for whatever reason, succumbing to a disease that turns them into milky-eyed psychopaths is handled with gusto. A mother-and-child moment provides a genuine if fleeting emotional wrench, and a handful of surprisingly nasty encounters with other affected adults are properly tense.
It’s here, around the 30-minute mark, that the film really kicks into gear, only to then subside disappointingly back into teen drama a few scenes later, right at the point where the narrative ought to shrug off concerns about who’s making out with whom and concentrate primarily on further unsettling a well-primed audience. Perhaps a tight budget precluded more mayhem: Conversation is cheap compared to stunt work, after all. Still, the lack of punch to the interpersonal dynamics is not the only problem here.
Poiraud seems to be aiming for a fantastical out-of-time, out-of-space quality. One hopes that’s the aim, at least, since aerial shots of Finland combined with extensive Canary Islands location work and a smorgasbord of U.K. regional accents do not suggest we ‘re situated anywhere realistic. It’s an issue that could easily be remedied by having the British teens attend a summer camp abroad, rather than a care home — though you’d admittedly sacrifice the sense of them as society’s scrappy rejects.
Given we’re dealing with lost children on an island where growing up is a thoroughly undesirable state of affairs, it could be read as a version of Neverland. If this otherworldly geographical mishmash is intentionally disorienting, however, this is only circumstantially acknowledged. Possibly this will prove less of a sticking point for auds unfamiliar with the difference between U.K. landscapes and subtropical islands: The London Film Festival might not have been the aptest place for the pic to premiere.
The young cast of British thesps are of mixed ability: Standouts are David, whose mercurial charisma and leadership qualities recall John Boyega’s breakout turn in “Attack the Block,” and Darren Evans, whose wiry, amiable joker Shaun provides sure-footed and welcome relief from the angst enmeshing the coupled-up characters. Saddled with blander roles, Riordan and Kelly are nevertheless required to do more emotional heavy lifting as the plot develops — a miscalculation that only draws attention to the by-the-book nature of their fledgling romance.
Twenty-odd years ago, a bigger-budget picture would have cast Juliette Lewis as Pearl: A talent uniquely suited to such end-of-innocence depictions, she might have generated more sparks than Kelly from slightly soggy material. The character of Bastien is given woozy-cam flashbacks to an abusive childhood; his present-day incarnation gives Riordan little to do between long stretches of glowering.
The questionable effects generated by location dissonance aside, tech specs are of a high standard, with one setpiece involving a town aflame a particular production-design triumph.