Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother who lost her husband almost seven years ago in a car accident, and what made it all the more tragic was that he was rushing her to the hospital to give birth to their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Now, all this time later, they are both still suffering from the big gap in their lives, and Amelia for one still has nightmares about that fateful evening; not helping matters is that Samuel endures nightmares as well, convinced there is a monster of some childhood terror that is on its way to meet them. His mother is finding this constant waking up from her slumber to attend to her son a real trial, and would give anything for a decent night's sleep, but her waking hours are little better as Samuel has become a problem at school...
Seemingly from out of nowhere arrived The Babadook, an instant cult movie that also happened to be a fair-sized international success, not blockbuster proportions but generating enough goodwill in the word of mouth to drum up support from around the world. The brains behind it was writer and director Jennifer Kent, who had not arrived from nowhere as she and her co-star Davis had been stalwarts of the Australian acting scene with more than a few credits between them, but she had felt the need to turn her creativity to projects she actually controlled, and after a handful of shorts, including a dry run for this, she was confident enough to craft a feature on meagre but sufficient funds. The results put many a contemporary Hollywood horror to shame.
Which was appropriate, since shame was a large part of the emotion conveyed in the film as its two main characters sink into the depths of despair. Amelia feels embarrassed that her son is acting up so badly, thinking it is because she is a poor parent in comparison with how things would have played out had her husband lived, but Kent places a doubt in the audience's mind as to what is really up with Samuel. Either he is mentally unstable and that pressure is beginning to rub off on his mother, or there is a presence pushing at his reality which is both frightening him to his core and encouraging to behave in a manner that looks irrational to everyone else, yet makes perfect sense to him. Whichever, it does not look too sunny in his household.
Back at the shame, perhaps the major disadvantage depicted in The Babadook was one of mental illness, the whole story acting as a metaphor for the stigma such a condition can be, and how the world at large can appear extremely cold and uncaring, even hostile, to you should you be unfortunate to fall victim to it. The plot does interesting things in shifting our sympathies between the harrassed mother and the little boy lost in his madness, so we start off having our heart go out to Amelia who simply cannot cope, Davis bringing a sterling performance of impossible fatigue mixed with tearful stress which occasionally causes her to lash out at anyone within range who just will not or cannot understand what she is going through. But as the film draws on, we begin to worry more for the boy, trapped in a house with a possible danger.
Whether that be his mother or the entity as shown in the pages of a mysterious pop-up book is up to the audience to judge, though by the point one appears to have taken over the other we have good reason to be anxious. In simple yet effective setpieces, the crushing weight of modern existence leads Amelia to withdraw further into herself, leaving her more or less confined to that house which seems too big, certainly seems too unfriendly, for her and Samuel, especially with the book's denizen making himself known in hallucinations which may or may not be happening, the truth becoming all too malleable in the hands of whatever's punishing the pair. This could have been yet another horror film to show how mental illness is nothing more than the source of terror for both the afflicted and those in wider society, so it was absorbing to see Amelia and Samuel attempt to handle it, and the final message as one of a curious positivity, no last second jump scare here, only a very fine and refreshing take on its subject; it was even weirdly reassuring in a qualified fashion. Music by Jed Kurzel.