“Turning Red” presented a tear-jerking, Disney-friendly take on female puberty. Now it’s time to introduce its hideous, terrifying, ballsy cousin: the Finnish horror movie “Hatching.”
This debut feature from Hanna Bergholm, which originally premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, follows Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), a 12-year-old gymnast in a crushing culture of perfection, and Alli, the bird monster she unwittingly hatches from a backyard egg. It is subversive, stomach-churning and visionary, a body-horror film that doubles as a fable of femininity gone wrong.
The film opens on shots of Tinja doing gymnastics stretches in the living room spliced with birds-eye footage of her idyllic suburb. This slips into a montage for the family vlog Tinja’s mother (Sophia Heikkilä), manages, called “Lovely Everyday Life.” As the family poses contentedly on the couch, a crow careens into the house and smashes everything breakable in the living room. The matriarch calmly snaps the bird’s neck and instructs Tinja to put it in the trash — the compost, actually.
This sets the tone for the rest of Ilja Rautsi’s irreverent, biting script. That same night, Tinja follows the call of the injured crow into the forest behind her home. In an act of simultaneous frustration and mercy, she kills it, then guiltily brings home an egg she finds nearby. As her home life grows in its dysfunction — her mother is having an affair with their handyman, Tero (Reino Nordin); her brother Matias (Oiva Ollila) is irascible; and her father (Jani Volanen) is oblivious to everything — Tinja begins to care for the egg the way she clearly wishes someone might care for her. It grows exponentially, and then, one night after it absorbs Tinja’s tears, it hatches.
The creature that emerges is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. This abomination, courtesy of animatronic designer Gustav Hoegen (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” “Ex Machina”), is birdlike, but it’s also un-birdlike enough to be very uncanny. It has talons, a beak, and a sparse smattering of gooey black feathers, but it also sports enormous blue irises and human teeth. Tinja is appropriately horrified at first, but she eventually learns to live with it and takes it upon herself to care for it, including feeding it her own vomit. She names the creature Alli, after a lullaby about an orphan.
Alli has some destructive tendencies, leaving Tinja scrambling to cover up various instances of violence and strangeness around her house. The creature is clearly sympathetic to Tinja’s feelings, particularly bad ones like annoyance and resentment, and wants to eliminate all living things that stand in her master’s way. This is incredibly stressful to Tinja who, in between training for her first big gymnastics competition and struggling to live up to her mother’s exacting standards, is trying not to show that she feels any difficult feelings at all.
Just like “Ginger Snaps” before it, “Hatching” associates female coming-of-age with monstrousness. Puberty metaphors abound, punctuated by a visual joke about menstruation. Blood and viscera begin to cover Tinja’s pristine life, and her family members repeatedly comment that she smells bad. What’s brilliant about “Hatching” is that Alli doesn’t bring new challenges into Tinja’s life so much as it throws her preexisting burdens into stark relief. Alli poses a threat to Tinja, but it is also a part of her, its arrival seemingly inevitable.
Tinja’s mother has raised her in a strict culture of image-consciousness and control, in which seeming anything less than perfect is a fate worse than death. Her mother makes Tinja practice gymnastics routines until her palms bleed, keeps an eye on Tinja’s weight and holds Tinja responsible for her own emotional well-being. Towards the beginning of the movie, Tinja notices that her toes are not properly pointed in some vlog footage where she’s practicing gymnastics. Instead of saying, “That’s OK,” her mother tells her she’ll crop it out.
Her mother’s feminine authority stretches beyond mere behavior and covers every corner of the house, from the wallpaper to each family member’s clothes, in a sinisterly serene palette of blue, pink and white. Production designer Päivi Kettunen has done a particularly brilliant job communicating this through decor. Think “But I’m a Cheerleader,” slightly dialed down.
It’s no wonder, then, that Tinja’s life descends into horror with the introduction of Alli. This creature does not represent mere imperfection; it embodies all of the human ugliness Tinja has been so consistently pressured to avoid. The creature is unkempt, smelly, vengeful and feral. And while “Hatching” at first seems to be another film about a loner unwittingly befriending a hostile monster, it has a deliciously nasty trick up its sleeve. Let’s just say Alli doesn’t spend the entire movie looking like a bird — it turns into something even scarier.
Bergholm proves herself an unflinching force with this first feature, where nothing is off-limits. Her cast, led with aplomb by newcomer Solalinna, is pitch-perfect as they gamely descend into madness. Finnish television actor Heikkilä is particularly satisfying as the mother, who is equal parts chilling, absurd and facile. (She and Solalinna get extra points for allowing themselves to be repeatedly covered with goo.)
Where it might be easy for a film like “Hatching,” which chiefly lampoons and criticizes a self-absorbed mother, to pander to misogynistic tropes, Bergholm instead reaches for nuance. This is not a story about how catty and shallow women are; it is a cautionary tale about the limits of one-dimensional femininity. The mother is not antagonistic because she is a mother, but because she cares more about appearing to raise happy children than she does about her kids’ actual happiness.
In an age where more and more parents are broadcasting their children online — whether through YouTube, Instagram, TikTok or all of the above — it is especially timely to see “Hatching” cast a mommy vlogger as its villain. As these perpetually scrutinized children grow, it feels like only a matter of time before we see a generation of Tinjas unleash their inner Allis.
“Hatching” opens in US theaters April 29.