The movie documents the Poe family: father David (Adrian Pasdar), a pastor, mother Clare (Cady McClain), the chief resident of the child psychiatry unit at a hospital, and children, ten-year-old twins Emily (Amber Joy Williams) and Jack (Austin Williams). David and Clare have an inkling of how abnormal and cruel the kids are, but when they relocate the family to the country to start fresh, they have no idea what they’re in for.
It’s shot found footage style. My main criteria for becoming immersed in films that use this technique is that the characters have a believable reason to consistently film what’s going on in their lives, even when dangerous shit is going down. This is the case for most of the movie, but sometimes it seems like the filmmakers forget that it’s supposed to be shot by amateurs, like the scene when Clare relates the detail that David was abused as a kid, which is voiced over footage of David drinking excessively. I can’t picture Clare hauling the camera out to spy on him, narrating the whole time. David is definitely believable as the compulsive documenter of every event.
The characters are interesting. David is sometimes charming, sometimes petulant, sometimes childish and immature. Clare is the voice of reason. She can be occasionally goofy, and she’s totally winning. When the kids are out of range or ostensibly behaving, Clare and David are so cute and happy together. We get a glimpse of how they were before they had kids, and it’s heartbreaking.
In one scene, Clare and David are discussing their complex relationship with Jack and Emily; David bemoans the fact that he still loves them even after they reveal that they’re clearly budding serial killers. (Clare determines that they have conduct disorder, the childhood version of antisocial personality disorder, which can’t be officially diagnosed until the person in question is eighteen.) Clare says, “We can stop.” She means stop recording, but the ambiguity is telling. It’s a tired genre, but Emily and Jack are a pretty original depiction of evil kid characters. They’re not manipulative and mean, but instead lifeless and cold, and they have barely any dialogue.
Dragons are a clever image system in the movie, most notably a stuffed one that’s often in the background. In a chilling bit of foreshadowing, David reads Emily and Jack a bedtime story, The Dragon and the Paper Bag. It’s about a two-headed dragon that masquerades itself among schoolchildren and gains their trust, after which it eats them alive.
I enjoyed it for the most part. I got grumpy about how it’s unethical for Clare to diagnose her kids or prescribe them anything; in the field of psychology, an objective third person is best qualified to handle mental health issues, not someone the patient knows outside of treatment. (Though to be fair, by that point in the movie the kids’ behavior is totally off the rails, and Clare’s professional ethics are the least of her worries.) But really, my biggest gripe is why David, knowing his kids are assholes, teaches them lock-picking.