Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
Like Jerry Maquire had Dorothy Boyd at hello, Kaya Scodelario had me at “Apex Predator all day.” While Crawl may not be the most sophisticated or well-scripted film, it doesn’t need to be. It’s exactly as advertised — a fun, dumb romp that somehow perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being hunted while taking a chunk right out of your own nerves to leave you flailing around helplessly in the water. Like 47 Meters Down and The Shallows, it’s a survivalist horror film that pits woman against predator with a single laser focus. There’s only one mission: Fight the underwater monster(s), save the day. Or in the case of Crawl: Fight the underwater monsters and also try not to get swallowed up by one of Mother Nature’s most fearsome natural disasters.
As I’m writing this, I’m currently experiencing a phenomenon that never used to be a part of my very California experience. Humidity. In California? Northern California? I wish I was joking. This definitely wasn’t something that used to happen here, in fact, my family left the Midwest when I was 9 to escape that kind of horrible, oppressive weather. Fine, we left for more legitimate reasons than that, but I like to think it was also because of the humidity during the summer that was so intense we all had to sleep on the floor on the lowest level of our house to escape it. Northern California was a huge step up in almost every regard. Even if we might be currently experiencing maybe the worst wildfire season yet, I’m not sure hurricanes are a better tradeoff.
But enough about climate change. Let’s talk about alligators.
This alligator-filled creature feature is as fun as it is stressful to keep watching. Following the quickly-put-together backstory about a competitive Florida college swimmer who finds herself in the precarious situation of being hunted by massive alligators in a rapidly flooding old house while trying to save her dad during a hurricane, it’s easy to get caught up in the action. No real surprises save for the first initial crash of a giant alligator into the mix to kick things off — a jump scare that even got me, a seasoned horror veteran, to scream — but the film never shies away from continuously upping the stakes until you’re practically begging for mercy … or a stress ball.
With a Category 5 hurricane approaching, Haley (Scodelario) makes a risky detour to her childhood home when her estranged father isn’t answering his phone, taking the family dog Sugar with her to investigate. (Spoiler disclaimer for those like me who find this sort of information important: The dog does not die in this one. Maybe don’t watch this movie with your dog, though. Between Sugar barking onscreen and the monster alligators chomp-chomping away, my own loyal canine was doing her level best to fight every single one of them from my living room couch.)
Haley eventually finds her dad injured underneath the house in the flooded crawlspace, after he stupidly tried to board up the place well after evacuation alerts had expired. Typical stubborn dad move. Enter a 20-foot-long alligator crashing through the wall, hungry for man flesh … and he brought along a friend. What follows is an absurd yet gripping series of unfortunate events as the two of them attempt to fight off two hungry alligators under the house with floodwaters steadily rising, all while struggling with their own personal issues and trying to beat a hurricane.
Father-daughter relationships can be so hard, especially in your late teens and early 20s. You’re still figuring things out while he’s already stuck enough in his ways that it just drives you crazy, and even if you don’t mean to, you stop communicating. What you don’t realize at the time is how much you might also be alike when it feels like you couldn’t be more different, which Haley’s sister calls her on when she accuses Haley and her father of being exactly alike. Stubborn, unable to let go of the past. I can relate. Not sure if there’s a magic number for what age that happens where you realize this but for me, it was in my early 30s. As the only daughter and oldest sibling, I’d like to think I’m already becoming something of an authority on navigating the off-putting, unfamiliar waters of reconciling the ways in which you are different and also uncomfortably the same as your parents, especially your set-in-his-ways father. It’s a weird thing to realize that your parents are only human and that, for better or for worse, things do get passed down.
In Crawl, we learn that Haley’s dad was her swimming coach growing up and that she has a fraught relationship with both of her parents after their divorce. She blames her mother for leaving and also blames her father for never really moving on, as any rational twentysomething girl would. “Don’t let them see you cry, Haley,” her father tells her in a flashback to a long-ago swim meet, thereby inadvertently teaching her to suppress her feelings in a lesson that she carries with her into emotionally stunted adulthood. I’m not a child of divorce, but I do come from a long line of people who avoid and repress their feelings like it’s a sport, myself included.
The film quickly becomes a ping-pong match of what crazy shenanigans the screenwriters can hit Haley and her father with next, simultaneously navigating their own murky familial waters in order to find common ground again, with some touching father-daughter moments thrown in to lend some emotional weight to the film’s 90-minute running time.
When Haley was a kid, Coach Dad would call her “the Apex Predator” as a means of encouragement whenever she felt like she wasn’t fast enough. But as an adult, she feels like she’s reached her limit. Can’t seem to swim fast enough in her meets, but she finds the will to out-swim a bunch of monster-sized alligators in the ultimate test for survival. It’s too bad they don’t hand out medals for that because Scodelario deserves them all.
Scodelario thankfully isn’t such an underrated actress these days; she’s been getting the attention she so rightly deserves for years, but I’ll always remember her for her unforgettable role as Effy Stonem in Skins. She was the perfect Cathy in Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, an extremely enjoyable addition to the newest film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and her part in Netflix’s Spinning Out deserved way more than just one season. She’s the kind of actress who’s able to bring a unique style and nuance to any role she takes on, even in a B-movie about a man and his daughter battling alligators and a hurricane. Scodelario is magic on the screen no matter what she’s doing, effortlessly balancing the film’s choppy waters with the grace of a natural-born scream queen.
Director Alexandre Aja’s waterlogged claustrophobic nightmare inside a crawlspace eventually turns into an all-out brawl with Mother Nature as father and daughter finally escape the flooded, alligator-infested house only to have a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on them. The thing that draws me to movies like these is their capacity for absurdity as well as genuine human compassion, and this one contains multitudes. In the same film that delivers a scene where a swarm of alligators eat a family stealing a whole-ass ATM machine by speedboat and another where Scodelario discovers an entire nest of hatching baby-alligator eggs in the overflow drain pipe, it also manages to deliver a surprisingly heartfelt commentary on the emotional trauma of family dysfunction and the sometimes strain of father-daughter relationships. Aja is always at his best when he’s allowed room to really let loose with the trashy gorefest; Piranha 3D, while an objectively terrible film, is really fun garbage, Mirrors is also visually great, and High Tension is probably the best example of Aja never feeling like there is such a thing as too much gore. You can tell he’s really in his element the more that carnage builds up.
Crawl clobbers you over and over again with its masterful use of such limited space and takes you on a wild ride that feels like part rollercoaster and part rat maze as Scodelario navigates the cramped crawlspace under the house to find a way out and save her dad while trying not to get eaten by a couple of asshole alligators. The film is committed to the idea of therapeutic reconciliation between a daughter and her estranged father by fighting a bunch of alligators and an actual hurricane together, but it somehow never takes itself too seriously — as evident by the extremely hilarious credits roll set to the tune of ‘See You Later, Alligator’ by Bill Haley & His Comets. Whether it happens to be great white sharks or 20-foot alligators, it’s really satisfying to watch these women take their films by the teeth and claim the spotlight for themselves.
In life and when all else fails, do what Scodelario has always done: Be the Apex Predator.