By Joy Webster | Drama
A young boy struggles with the loss of his mother while his sister copes through violence.

Jack is a young boy who is often isolated and alone. He struggles in the wake of his mother’s death. He also is bullied by his sister, who subjects him to twisted games of surprisingly menace.

He struggles with the emptiness, tension and cruelty of his world, often taking refuge in the woods near his home and nursing the memories of his deceased mother. But after one game too many, eventually Jack asserts himself against his sister, leveling the same coiled threat against her that was used against him.

Writer-director Joy Webster’s taut, suspenseful family drama traces the arc of an isolated, troubled young boy, as he attempts to grapple with his grief and find a sense of control and power in his often lonely world.

The pared-down shooting style and dialogue emphasizes the paucity of guidance, warmth and nurturing in this family, emphasizing the emptiness and neglect of the world around Jack. But despite the seeming minimalism of the craft, the almost offhand, unobtrusive visual approach is actually quite meticulous, especially in capturing the undercurrents of emotions in the young boy.

The one adult figure of the narrative is often rendered as a visually marginal element, with his head cropped out of frame or a mere figure filling in a wider shot. Yet the absent dad’s presence speaks volumes, especially since he takes his daughter shooting, and she learns to associate guns with pleasure, power, dominance and control — and finds ways to play with them when she and Jack are left on their own.

With such an intimate focus on the experience of the brother and sister, the performances of the young actors at the center become key. Both actor Jack Fulton as the oppressed little brother and actress Ava Preston as the often malevolent sister offer subtle yet explosive performances of remarkable and affecting precision.

Like the filmmaking itself, their characterizations are on the understated side, but both are allowed moments of dimensionality, where viewers can glimpse the resentment seething in Jack, especially when he is pushed by his sister’s bullying to retaliate in a dark, foreboding way. Her own vulnerable, fearful reaction to the turning of the tables emphasizes that she’s not just an antagonist — she, too, is also just a child in this background of sadness and neglect, making the tragedy of this family all the more achingly devastating.

“Game” is a finely honed and crafted drama, whose quietness in tone, approach and performance belies its powerful impact. Through an almost forensic sense of emotional intelligence and an intimate, compassionate focus on character and feeling, it offers keen insight into how the roots of violence plant themselves in emotionally barren or psychologically toxic families and individuals — and how they take hold and explode in ways that are distressing, and portend darkly for the future.

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