By far the best film of 2020
Natalie Erika James’s Relic is a psychologically traumatizing debut horror/drama film about what it's like to mourn for someone who’s still alive. Workaholic Kay (Emily Mortimer) travels with her grown daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to her elderly mother Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) empty home after being notified by the police that neighbors haven't seen her in a while. The state of Edna’s house gives immediate cause for concern as it looks like a hoarder’s playground with posted notes taped everywhere with reminders to lock the door, turn the water off, and don't follow it. Edna soon returns (with a blackened bruise on her chest that looks like it's been there for a while), oblivious to having been gone at all and remains stubborn and irritated at what she sees as everyone making a big fuss over nothing.
Kay begins researching local nursing facilities while Sam insists Edna shouldn't be put into those places and even suggests she move in with Edna much to Kay’s distress. “It's important that you're on my side on this,” Kay tells her. “This is what's best for her”. Kay says this with half baked certainty that completely vanishes after visiting the facility herself as she breaks down sobbing on the highway.
Edna’s obvious dementia grows more problematic as Relic continues. Edna gives Sam a family heirloom ring in a particularly touching scene only to forget about it later as she accuses Sam of stealing it and bruises her granddaughter's finger as she forcibly removes it. She also begins throwing things, slamming her bedroom door, and screaming that it's her house.
Relic offers a lot of symbolism towards Edna’s deterioration. The ugly mold on her fruit and her walls, the wax on her candles, and the overflowing bathtub where the water starts to pour from the ceiling, all of that points to the inside of her mind. It's also essential buildup to Relic’s second most soul-crushing scene (the first one is the ending which I couldn't possibly spoil) in which Edna attempts to bury the family photo album in front of Kay and even tries to eat some of the photographs, insisting the memories can't stay alive in the house. This is the scene where Kay finally lets her guard of authority down and insists she's here to help her.
“Where is everyone?” Edna meekly wails. “Where is everyone going?” Nevin’s delivery of these lines will leave you shaking uncontrollably and hugging yourself for dear life. Mortimer, Nevin, and Heathcote ought to win the SAG for Best Cast as the three of them together all make the dark fairytale of the little old lady who lives in a house in the woods so relevant.
By the time Kay decides to take Edna back to the city to move in with her, Sam has discovered a hidden labyrinth in Edna’s closet - a labyrinth that explains so much and turns Relic into the horror film the trailer said it was.
Relic is an amazing film that will hit so close to home for so many people, you'll feel as though you've been kicked in the stomach. Even without dementia, Relic showcases the reality that at some point, our parents become children again and we become their parents. At one point, Edna asks Kay to look under her bed to make sure no one's under there as though she's a child.
Too many people from Edna’s generation get to a place where they physically can't take care of themselves anymore. Audiences with physically afflicted grandmothers will be particularly haunted by Relic and see a lot of themselves in Sam. Often, the grandmother's world is so small that the grandchild sees the house as symbolic to the pain whereas the grandmother sees the house as the biggest part of her identity, as it contains all her memories and her history.
Relic also says a lot about generational love. The specifics are never fully disclosed but Kay and Edna have been estranged for some time and at the beginning of Relic, it's clear that it's hard for Kay to see Edna and Sam have fun and love each other to the extent that they do as this probably wasn't what Kay experienced growing up. Mother/daughter relationships are usually very complicated. They just are and they can become very messy. As sad as it is, sometimes grandchildren are the pawns that bring them back together and the mother doesn't acknowledge this until much later.
The sound design is also very important. The sounds of doors creaking, water dripping, and wrinkled skin peeling are words of their own as they say so much. Relic received rave reviews at Sundance this year and so far, I see it as the best film of 2020. Relic gives audiences lots of pain but also crystal lenses to see tough circumstances a little clearer.