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Relic takes a moving, horrific and allegorical look at aging

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"I just wish I could turn around and go back." — Edna (Robyn Nevin)

Before I tell you about director/co-writer Natalie Erika James's Relic, I'm going to settle a question that a dozen people have already asked me: Her Relic is not a sequel, remake or reboot, nor is it in any way associated with the 1997 Peter Hyams film about a rampaging Mayan demi-god gobbling up museum patrons in Chicago.

In the 2020 Relic, Kay (Emily Mortimer), after being unable to contact her mom, Edna, goes with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to Edna's house to find her missing. After searching the house and the immediate surroundings, Kay goes to the police, and a search is organized, which turns up nothing.

Then, as mysteriously as she vanished, Edna reappears, oblivious to the fact she's been absent for days, incapable of remembering anything about her whereabouts or activities. Kay and Sam are uncertain what to do: enroll Edna in an old age home where she can be cared for, or try to manage their increasingly dissociated matriarch themselves.

Of course, the half-glimpsed shadows and muffled sounds in Edna's old home are just products of a creaky old house, its corners as cobwebby as Edna's clouded mind — right?

There's been numerous films touching on the very real topic of dementia, including that perennial favorite, 2004's The Notebook, and 2017's Logan, which examines what happens when a superhero begins suffering from the condition. But, much like 2014's The Taking of Deborah Logan, Relic takes an allegorical look at the issue through the prism of the supernatural. At least, I think it's the supernatural.

Why do I say that? I'm trying hard here, not to be spoilery. Unlike The Taking of Deborah Logan, Relic doesn't trot out all the supernatural tropes we're accustomed to. Director James isn't interested in a prerequisite number of jump-scares with one timed every eight minutes or so. Her purpose is more a growing sense of dread, an almost subliminal terror that a beloved member of the family may no longer be the person you remember, but a brand new one with a different outlook and needs than the one you knew.

James includes very little male representation. We do see one or two briefly, including the teenager next door (Chris Bunton), who may or may not have witnessed something, but the film’s entire perspective comes from the three RNA-linked generations. It seems appropriate, as daughters frequently do end up as the caretakers for moms who can no longer care for themselves.

But while I occupy a different gender than Relic’s protagonists, it didn't fail to grip me with its building tension, largely because I found that, even as a male, I had no problem identifying with any of the actresses in their moody performances, and I appreciated the fact that not all the answers, or any answers, are neatly laid out.

There's some weird stuff going on beyond the prosaically supernatural, some of which are open to interpretation — in fact, most of them are — but I would classify Relic in the same style of films such as It Follows and The Babadook, in that what I expect to happen doesn't. And I like to be surprised.

Relic is available to watch via video-on-demand.

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