Under Growth

By Evin O’Neill | Drama
A young girl gets into a dangerous adventure of her own making.

Hayley is being dropped off at her dad’s house for the weekend. Her mom has recently split from her husband, who now lives alone. The situation is tense, but Hayley is looking forward to spending time with her father.

But her dad has been drinking all night and is hungover from his binge. Left to her own devices, as a result, Hayley plays in the woods around her dad’s house… and gets into a dangerous adventure of her own.

Writer-director Evin O’Neill’s short is a gorgeously moody, compelling journey into one young girl’s emotional and imaginative world, rendered with equal parts sensitivity and suspense. Through deft, disciplined craftsmanship, it creates a sleight-of-hand trick in the storytelling that reveals just how much Hayley is haunted by her family situation — as well as a way for her to heal, even in a small way.

The film begins much like a slice-of-life family drama, with hand-held camerawork, a muted palette and careful attention paid in the performances and editing to the unspoken words and silences that exist between people. But early on the storytelling shows signs of uneasiness that reveals there’s something more brewing in the storytelling beyond the unvarnished naturalism that it may have initially promised.

There is a darkness and nervousness in the colors and camerawork of the visuals, and a glimpse into the disorderly world of Hayley’s father, which builds up an anxiety about the young girl’s situation. But most of all, there’s a precision and carefulness to the pacing and editing — and a willingness to elongate moments of uncertainty and worry — that slowly primes viewers for something darker and more ominous.

That darkness becomes a slow-growing but overarching narrative question, one that slowly but deeply draws audiences in. And when Hayley, therefore, finds herself alone in the woods, she finds herself in a perilous situation — one that reveals the final shape of the film itself, as well as Hayley’s deepest feelings about her family.

To talk about one of the strengths of “Under Growth” as a short is, in some way, to give away the pleasure of its ending. It accomplishes a Moebius strip-like twist that seamlessly shifts the shape and tenor of the narrative, but the shift isn’t for the sake of being clever. When it’s revealed to its fullest extent, it both offers a sense of relief and an insight to Hayley’s inner world.

It also offers a bridge over which Hayley’s father — on the verge of estrangement and disconnection — can reach her where she’s at, and join her. At heart, this is the most basic and perhaps most difficult job of parenting: understanding a child’s inner world and helping them find their way out. As an emotional and psychological journey, “Under Growth” captures this is an unexpected, engaging and uniquely metaphorical way, one that understands the inchoate way that huge, difficult emotions can feel for kids, but uses this archetypal language to find its expression — and also mutual understanding.

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