Boaz Yakin has a talent for misdirection. The writer/director, whose previous films have included Now You See Me, is very good at convincing his audiences that they know exactly where a narrative is going while simultaneously preparing to blindside them, and that full skills set is on display in his brand new horror/thriller Boarding School.
Jacob (Luke Prael) is a 12 year old boy who seems to be at odds with his high-strung mother (Samantha Mathis) and well-starched stepfather (David Aaron Baker) no matter what he does. When his grandmother, whom he has never met, dies and her things are brought back to the family’s home, the boy becomes obsessed with her image, her clothes, and her life.
Wrongly suspended from school, Jacob spends hours poring over her things. He turns on one of the records from her collection, pulls on one of her crushed velvet dresses and satiny elbow length gloves and dances around the living room…only to be caught by his stepfather who arrives home early from work.
Within days, Jacob finds himself packed into a car with his things, headed to a very special boarding school for “misfit children” run by Dr. and Mrs. Sherman (Will Patton, Tammy Blanchard), a hyper-religious couple with a firm spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child philosophy.
All is not what it seems, of course, and that’s where Yakin proves his writing genius. I don’t want to brag, but I’m pretty good at determining the path a film or novel is going to take. Yet every time I thought I was on the right track, Yakin would once again pull the rug out from under me, and I have to admit, it was a refreshing change.
Boarding School is also one of the rare film’s whose direction and writing are well and truly amplified by its cast.
Yakin’s script requires Prael to maneuver a vast emotional arc throughout the film, and the young actor proves himself more than capable of the task in a performance that could be described as transcendent. The audience watches his mannerisms and physicality evolve to match those emotional requirements as he becomes a friend, protector, and in some ways, the correcting parent to his fellow students throughout the film.
Patton and Blanchard, meanwhile, give their own brilliantly layered performances as the softest notes of their contained malice eventually give way to full-scale operatic level evils.
It isn’t only the film’s stars who brought their A-game to the film, however. Yakin and casting directors Henry Russell Bergstein and Stephanie Holbrook assembled a brilliant supporting ensemble for Boarding School, and this is especially true for its younger cast.
Sterling Jerins (The Conjuring) is almost, if not more, menacing than the Shermans in her role as Christine, the society girl with sociopathic tendencies, and Christopher Dylan White (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) gives an unbelievably skilled head-to-toe performance as Frederic, a young man with Tourette Syndrome.
Also of special note is Nadia Alexander (The Sinner) who plays a young burn victim named Phil who becomes Jacob’s roommate at school and teaches him about astronomy by sticking glow in the dark stars all around their room to form constellations.
It isn’t often in a review on a horror site that one has the opportunity to write about set decoration and costume design, but for Boarding School it’s an absolute must.
Production designer Mary Lena Colston and set decorator Cheyenne Ford created a world where everything is perfectly placed. In their hands, the “school” is both decadent and dark with rich colors and sparkling finery throughout. It is the glittering spiderweb full of danger that lures its victims into its depths and is wholly reminiscent of those amazing sets that horror audiences loved in Argento’s Suspiria and a color palette that would make Mario Bava proud.
Meanwhile, Jessica Zavala dresses each character to accentuate both their real and imagined personalities. This is especially true in the stark white and black color pallete of clothing preferred by Blanchard’s Mrs. Sherman, and in the deep blue velvet of the dress that Prael’s Jacob wears multiple times during the film.
And speaking of that dress…
It isn’t often that we see a character in horror that is honestly experimenting with gender fluid expression, and it was fascinating to watch this unfold with Jacob. Yakin’s script never explicitly spells out whether this is a personality trait that will continue or if it was simply experimentation brought on by Jacob’s fascination with his grandmother and her story of survival in German Nazi camps.
However, even if this is experimentation, it is portrayed with an unexpectedly raw emotional honesty by Prael. Jacob seems wholly comfortable, confident, empowered and radiant in the dress at one moment dancing around his living room only to be overcome with shame and fear when he is discovered by his stepfather moments later.
Yakin gives us several moments in the film to watch Jacob’s struggle play out and Prael fully embraces all of the uncertainty that those scenes demand from an actor so young.
Some of you out there are no doubt wondering with all this discussion of sets and costumes and gender fluidity, how the film ended up on a horror site’s radar. I can assure you its place is well-earned.
There are genuinely terrifying moments to be found throughout Boarding School. In fact, the ultimate truth and endgame of Yakin’s film, which of course I won’t reveal, tears at the fabric of what we’re taught about family, and its final scene leaves the audience wondering just how changed Jacob has been from the entire experience.
Boarding School is set for release on August 31, 2018 for a limited theater run and on VOD. Check out the trailer below and keep your eyes peeled. This is one you won’t want to miss!