SIFF 2015: ‘Cub’ ['Welp'] Movie Review

by Warren Cantrell on May 19, 2015

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

Too often in this age of big-budget franchises and Harvey Scissor-hands producers, audiences must swallow the pre-chewed remnants of films tainted by mid- and post-production meddling from studios and their executives. These are the people who tinker with a movie via alternate ending re-shoots or excised sub-plots so that it has a broader appeal or a more palatable overall flavor. It’s easy for a filmmaker to fall back on this excuse in the face of criticism when legitimate intrusion has taken place, yet it is also at times painfully obvious when a picture might well have benefitted from such hands-on attention, as is the case with the Belgian slasher flick Cub. A movie with superb cinematography, shot selection, production design, acting, and even wardrobe, Cub ultimately falls apart under the weight of its own ambition.

Currently playing at the Seattle International Film Festival, Cub follows a troop of Belgian boy scouts (about a dozen in all) on an excursion into the French countryside for a multi-night camping trip. The scouts are led by adult troop leaders Peter (Stef Aerts) and Kris (Titus De Voogdt), and are joined en route by Jasmijn (Evelien Bosmans), another adult who is along for the trip as the camp cook. It doesn’t take the film more than about 10 minutes to get right into the heart of its first act, where it introduces the film’s lead, young scout Sam (Maurice Luijten), a quiet and introspective boy. Sam has it tougher than most of his peers, as he seems to have just one friend amongst the troop, along with the misfortune of being under the temporary guardianship of man-bully Peter.

Early on, Peter and Kris spook the young troopers with a ghost story regarding a feral werewolf in the woods where they are camping, yet are themselves startled by reports from a local cop that their campground was the sight of a mass suicide not that long ago. Thus everything is set for a rollicking slasher stew with all the proper ingredients (a comely young woman, scared campers, a tragic event back-story, a moody/shy protagonist, an asshole adult in need of comeuppance). Yet Cub isn’t a formulaic hack-and-slash outing, or even a wants-to-be-clever throwback picture that mimes all of the beats from the Michael Myers and Jason flicks of yore.

The shadowy presence in the woods comes in a form not at all expected, and develops in a manner that blurs the line between our perceived antagonist and protagonist. The actual killings, while adequately gory and crunchy, are clever in a Rube Goldberg sort of way, and demonstrate the creative flair of writer-director Jonas Govaerts. This is the first full-length feature for Govaerts, whose technical skill as a director is unquestionably sharp. Indeed, the world Cub inhabits feels lived-in and authentic, something that is heightened by the attention to detail in every facet of the production from the costumes to the set design. The camera moves and shot selections feel like the work of a seasoned pro, and elicit fantastic amounts of suspense and tension without tickling the audience all that much.

Regrettably, the production fractures as it moves through its second act, which is robbed of much of the action that’s crammed into the last third. A great many people are killed in Cub (as is entirely appropriate considering the set-up and premise), yet most of them fall very late in the picture, almost as an afterthought to a tacked-on ending. None of this really jives with the characters and world the picture very estimably draws out through the first hour, and seems more of a boon to a couple late-in-the-game “oh shit!” moments that fail to bring any depth to the movie. Character traits and conflicts that are carefully crafted throughout much of Cub are swept aside or completely abandoned during the picture’s last few minutes, which is dark, yet feels like a movie trying to be cleverer than it is.

To say much more would be a disservice to the film, which might take a few turns too many, yet does a damn fine job crafting an entirely watchable flick that does very well for itself up to a point. The cast does an especially good job bringing their characters to life, with the obvious stand-out being young Maurice Luijten as Sam, whose understated, nuanced performance holds Cub together. This is Mr. Govaerts’ first attempt at helming a full-length feature, and amongst partially crowd-funded movies shot by a rookie, this one is better than most. With a little luck, Jonas Govaerts will catch the eye of a big Hollywood studio looking to harvest a little foreign talent. If that’s the case, the world will likely see a lot more of the director, one who might just benefit from a studio with sway enough to help the man tidy up his scripts and final cuts a bit.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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