There is no dancing around the coincidental though cathartic metatextual delights to be uncovered in writer/director Caroline Lindy’s excellent feature debut “Your Monster.” A charming little film with plenty of bite it was most certainly created before its star, Melissa Barrera, was let go from her leading role in the “Scream” franchise. Still, to now see her in a fun new horror film playing a character who gets completely let down by those who undervalue her and is fighting to take back a role in a production she helped build? Oh, that’s just too delicious.
It is also merely the beginning of the pleasures that get teased out in this playful, almost poetic, horror romp as Lindy proves to be a filmmaker with the skill to get into the guts of the genre itself, to tear free its bloody, still-beating heart. Unabashedly silly, yet effectively sincere, it is a film that grows on you.
Premiering Thursday as a strong early work in the midnight programming at Sundance, it follows the talented though troubled Laura (Barrera) who has just experienced a breakup to end all breakups. After receiving a cancer diagnosis, she finds herself in the hospital with her boyfriend Jacob (Edmund Donovan) at her side. However, the prick doesn’t stay for long and breaks up with her on the spot. The reason? He has his own life to think about! What is that life? Well, it mostly involves taking the musical they worked on together all for himself.
From the moment we observe Laura being wheeled down the hallway in the aftermath of this so she can go home to begin the long process of recovery from surgery and undergo further treatment, we already see Barrera hitting all the right notes in her exhausted, deadpan expression. Comedic performances are often underrated, but her work here proves why they shouldn’t be. Even just the way she taps into a variety of humorous layers via the multitude of ways she can cry, capturing everything from relatable misery to a growing fury, is a true joy.
But what about the horror? That comes when Laura finds herself confined in her childhood home. She is all alone as she consumes so many pies that it would make Rooney Mara’s character in “A Ghost Story” flinch. When she begins hearing noises in her closet, she goes to investigate. It is there she finds Monster, who has continued to inhabit the now empty domicile for years while Laura went out into the world. Played by Tommy Dewey in excellent makeup and prosthetics that allow him to remain expressive while still looking like an even scruffier, angstier version of The Beast from “Beauty and the Beast,” he is a sight to behold.
The two initially butt heads as neither is jazzed about having a roommate right now. Comedy montages abound, confidently channeling some of the spirit of a film like “What We Do in the Shadows” by intertwining its fantastical premise with the more mundane realities of cohabitation. When the two begin to realize they have quite a lot in common, including a love of musicals and a shared history, they quickly grow closer right as Laura discovers she has a chance at being an understudy for the part she developed in Jacob’s upcoming production.
Much of this plays out as predicted, but that doesn’t always end up being a bad thing. Lindy carries most everything through to its comedic climax without shying away from embracing the weird. While it could have easily taken a few more leaps, it still reaches the heights it needs to. There is also a good chance it may awaken something deeper in those watching. You thought “The Shape of Water” was something? This makes that look downright vanilla by comparison.
Even as it can feel like it is falling back on some of the same jokes here and there, it never grows tiresome. Sharp when it needs to be, while simultaneously remaining oddly sweet, Lindy’s writing ensures it never falls into resembling a sketch that has been stretched into a feature. Both Barrera and Dewey bounce off each other perfectly, fully capturing the chaotic emotional moments that ensure the comedic ones land that much better. There is a bit of a contrived conflict as it approaches the conclusion, but that is all forgotten in one final show-stopping closer.
The particulars of this involve the film delivering on the grand punchline it was setting up and then upping the ante in an exhilarating final sequence. It sticks the landing with a mischievous smile for good measure. “Scream” may be dead as we know it, but Lindy’s film gives Barrera, much like Laura, the stage to show she doesn’t need stories from those who don’t value her. She’s got her own to tell and, if they’re anything like this one, what great ones they’ll be.
“Your Monster” is a sales title at Sundance.