Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how powerful folklore used to be. People these days are always connected, always updated, always on — for better or for worse.
Very few of us in this modern world know what it’s like to be truly isolated; if we do, it’s hard to remember. True isolation, with miles between neighbors and without smart phones, feels otherworldly now. True isolation breeds a kind of fear that logic won’t cure. But folklore used to make it easier to bear.
Tatterdemalion, directed by Ramaa Mosley (The Brass Teapot), co-written by Mosley and Tim Macy, and premiering at the Heartland Film Festival this upcoming weekend, speaks to the self-defeating trap that folklore provides to those who have nothing else to turn to.
The film follows Fern (Leven Rambin, The Hunger Games), a young soldier who returns to her extremely rural and poverty-stricken home in the Ozarks after her alcoholic father’s death to find her younger brother, from whom she was separated as a child.
Instead, she finds Cecil (Landon Edwards), a polite but strange boy who has been living in the woods and refuses to tell Fern or her social worker friend / love interest Mike (Jim Parrack, True Blood) where he came from. While Mike investigates the boy’s history, Fern lets Cecil stay with her and promptly falls ill, leading some of the locals to believe he is a tatterdemalion — a sort of childlike vampire from an old local tale who slowly kills his unsuspecting rescuers when they take him in from the woods and begin to love him.
As Fern gets sicker, the stories she initially dismissed as silly superstitions start sounding more and more true to her. Alone in her father’s house with a boy who may not be a boy, with the help of her own reliance on alcohol to alleviate her guilt for leaving her brother and her PTSD from her tours of duty, it’s remarkably easy to blame a child for things that are out of her control.
In a way, believing in the local folklore makes Fern’s world less complex. It lets her stay invulnerable and self-reliant, with no one to hurt and no one to hurt her in return. It’s not quite painless, but it’s easier than she thinks to cut an abused child out of her heart when a story tells you he is a monster who will steal your life out from under you.
But that’s the thing about folklore — it always springs from truth. Children are monsters. They do steal your life. And it’s the ones who do not belong to you that are the most dangerous, the most defenseless, the most in need of strangers to protect them. Fern learns the hard way that the story of the tatterdemalion exists to harden hearts and leave needy children to their fate; otherwise, no one in her community would survive. After all, the kind of poverty that pervades the Ozarks is the kind where compassion is looked upon with suspicion — where you put yourself first, or perish.
Like her community, Fern is isolated from the rest of the world, and isolated within herself. Director Mosley and cinematographer Darin Moran communicate this beautifully in the film’s visual language, where the space between Fern and Cecil becomes wider and wider as she falls deeper into superstition, until both of them are hardly in frame at all (a choice that, in the moment, is a little jarring, but upon reflection fits the theme quite well).
Meanwhile, shots of the woods feel close and intimate — a refuge, almost, compared to the claustrophobic town and its hard-hearted inhabitants. An atmospheric score adds to the mood, making the endless forest feel like a place where monsters could exist, if only you believed in them.
By the end of the film, Fern learns that real monsters do exist, but they don’t take the form of children. It’s a lesson she learned young but forgot, one she needed to see in Cecil to remember. It’s also something her community willfully ignores. While Fern conquers superstition for the sake of the boy who needs her, everyone else relies on it to shield themselves from the harsher truths of the world they live in. Folklore makes their survival easier, but it also makes their lives uglier. It creates more victims than it does survivors.
Despite its relatively happy ending, there’s a darkness that hangs over the final shots of Tatterdemalion that sticks with you. There are few easy answers here, and while there is a satisfying emotional resolution, there is no societal one. One woman changes; the community stays the same. It’s hopeful and crushing all at once. Mosley and her team have created a special film in Tatterdemalion, and if you can fit it into your Heartland schedule, it’s well worth a view.
Although the Saturday premiere at AMC Castleton has sold out, tickets are still available for a second screening at AMC Traders Point at 12:45 PM on Sunday, October 15. Check out Heartland’s website for more information.