Holly rings her school to tell them she is staying at home. She isn’t sick. She just can’t bring herself to go. “Bad things are going to happen today,” she says just above a whisper, her voice cracking.
But bad things happen to Holly most days; she is bullied constantly, little jibes from girls who say she smells or classmates who go through elaborate efforts not to touch “the witch,” as they call her. It is hard to see why. The central character in Holly (newcomer Cathalina Geeraerts, who impresses even in her silence) is just the designated victim, as she will soon become a designated savior. Two ends of the same straw, each tormenting in their own way.
She is right about that bad day. A fire breaks out in the school. Ten people die. In the face of such heartbreak, there is not much discussion of the strange phone call from the school wallflower, but at least one teacher wonders about it.
Anna (Greet Verstraete) is a candles and essential oils kind of person. She has her own reasons for wanting to find a source of hope and help, but she doesn’t see herself as self-seeking. When she ropes Holly into helping host a picnic for the bereaved parents several months after the fire, she believes she is bringing this ostracized girl in from the cold.
She sees smiles spread across the drawn faces of these sad adults when she approaches with trays of sandwiches. She holds their hands. Many hug her. There is something special there, Anna tells her partner.
Belgian director Fien Troch’s film, screening in competition at the Venice Film Festival, shares an initial premise with any number of films about mysterious powers brewing inside adolescent girls – Carrie being only the most obvious – but it has none of their DNA. Shot with flat realism of a piece with the drab school interiors and shopping malls where it is set, Holly is just as downbeat about its subject.
When news spreads of Holly’s helping powers, the most she is asked to do is lay her hands on sick children. There are no magical movements of objects, no demonic possession. If she has some kind of second sight, as evidenced on the terrible fire day, she can’t call it up at will. When people who think she connects with the beyond ask her what happens when people die, she looks away vaguely. “They go to heaven, I think,” she says. Her one demonstrable power is empathy. Arguably, that could be true of anybody.
What is undoubtedly true is that Holly comes from nothing. In an early scene, she is shown in her family kitchen, looking in the fridge for something to eat. There is not much beyond a couple of blackened bananas. Her mother (Els Deceukelier) lies on the couch in a mess of blankets, numbed by television. As she tells the school counsellor, Holly’s only friends are her sister Dawn (Maya Louisa Sterkendries), whose no-nonsense toughness keeps the bullies at bay – at least when she is around – and Bart (Felix Heremans), a neuro-divergent boy whose literal interpretation of the world doesn’t include witchcraft.
In a sense, however, he is her first initiate. Bart is inclined to shouting and kicking walls, but he will spend quiet hours with Holly, lying on her bed with his head on her knee or picking over racks of trashy jewelery with her on their afternoon wanders through town. It’s cheap, but not cheap enough for them to buy.
Some people pay her for whatever help she brings. At first she refuses. When she starts to take the money – she can buy new shoes, a cool puffer jacket that she proceeds to wear in all weathers – the film moves into new territory, posing questions about what genuine help is. Can it only be pure, untouched by filthy lucre? How pure is the desire for a supernatural helping hand in the first place?
Holly is just a young girl. She clearly shares their beliefs, as all shamans must believe in their own spells. It gives her purpose, but those who want to depend on her also want to blame her. Troch lets these shades of experience rise to the surface slowly. Very slowly, in fact. Those colors are never allowed to form a defined picture of what exactly is going on; Holly’s gift, like the girl herself, remains elusively unreadable to the end.
A curious, clever film, Holly is Carrie seen from the other side of the mirror, those magic hands by her sides, looking at her own image and wondering who she is.